A Field Trip to STEM School and Academy

Those who know me know that there are few things I love more than getting out and visiting schools. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life as an edu-nerd. Spreadsheets, data, laws, and studies are very much my bag. But those things can never truly convey the power of education to change lives and help kids reach their full potential. Education has always been, is now, and will forever be a fundamentally human undertaking that has to be observed firsthand to be fully appreciated.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the moving stories of unique private schools in Colorado, which are laid out nicely by my policy friend Ross Izard in his Profiles in Private Education series. But there are plenty of inspiring stories in the public school system, too, and those stories deserve to be told. That’s why I was so excited when I received a comment from a woman named Denise Gliwa on one my posts inviting me to visit a unique charter school in Douglas County School District called STEM School and Academy. Denise works at the school, and she thought I might be interested in seeing STEM in action. She was right. 

I visited the school last week in Highlands Ranch. It’s tucked back in a quiet section of the suburban area in an office complex that one might not immediately associate with a school serving roughly 1,500 K-12 students. Previously a middle and high school, STEM added an elementary program for the 2016-17 school year. That expansion almost didn’t happen thanks to charter opponents on the Douglas County School District Board of Education, but it eventually went through. Based on what I saw of the school, that’s great news for families with elementary kiddos looking for a STEM-focused education. (For those who have no idea what “STEM” means, it stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)

The inside of the school has a sort of welcoming industrial feel, with polished concrete hallways and small splashes of paint in place of carpets or tile. It’s an enormous place, and I had to stick to my tour guide like glue to avoid getting lost. Not that I’d have minded getting lost in STEM; it is absolutely stuffed with toys that I would love to play with.

I saw classrooms that included full-blown workshops that allow students to design and produce various items using a computer program and an enormous, commercial-grade carving machine. Okay, it’s probably not called a “carving machine”—that’s just the non-technical term that I’ve attached to it in my own head. My crafting terminology should be taken with a boulder of salt.

I may not be a technical wizard, but some of the students at STEM certainly are. I met one young lady who is a member of a robotics team (!?) that has won some prestigious awards. I also saw a pretty impressive computer lab staffed by a former Microsoft employee who teaches kids computer and software engineering and design. He showed me some of the options students can pursue, including game design, security systems, and other complicated stuff I couldn’t even begin to understand. He even showed me some nifty computer code created by students. It looked like gibberish to me, but then he informed me that the seemingly nonsensical numbers were actually the guts of a video game involving some pretty serious physics—physics coded with the help of the school’s physics teacher, of course.

To top off the experience, I saw a music room that included full production technology that allows students to not only create music, but learn about all the things that go into actually working in the music industry. It was very, very cool, and a far cry from my greatest musical accomplishment: plucking three strings in the correct order on an old guitar.

It was all fantastic, and it really went a long way toward illustrating the astonishing educational diversity one can find in Colorado’s thriving charter sector. But perhaps the most impressive part of my visit was when I got a chance to sit down with Dr. Penny Eucker, the school’s executive director. She has a rich background in school management, and her perspective on how to effectively and efficiently operate a successful school was enormously valuable. Most importantly, she exuded the same sense that I got from every member of the STEM staff I met: that they really, truly believe in the work they are doing and are constantly working to refine their practice.

That commitment to mission and improvement have helped drive some impressive academic results at the school (those of you who want to dig further into the school’s performance can view its most recent three-year performance framework here). That’s an especially big deal because the school had some serious problems when Dr. Eucker took the helm in 2012. Never underestimate the power of deep commitment and the constant drive toward improvement, my friends.

All in all, my field trip to STEM School and Academy was my favorite part of last week. I could go on and on about the school, but that will have to wait until some other time. For now, you should take STEM as one more example of how powerful educational innovation can be—and one more instance of educational choice at work in the real world. Right on, STEM!