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updated: 1/13/2014 11:51 PM

Aurora districts eyes STEM partnership school agreement

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Educators in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 are "energized" and "excited" about their potential participation in the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School set to open in August on the campus of Aurora University.

The school, authorized specifically by a law Gov. Pat Quinn signed in 2011, would teach third- through eighth-grade students from four local school districts -- 204, East Aurora, West Aurora and Oswego -- a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering and math. Teachers would come from the four partner districts and would serve 2- or 4-year terms at the STEM school before returning -- with new instructional expertise -- to their home districts.

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"I've often heard we need to work together with other districts to make ourselves stronger," District 204 Superintendent Kathy Birkett said. "This is an example of that."

The school board on Monday night began consideration of an agreement with the three other school districts and Aurora University. District 204 would send about 50 students and two or three teachers to the STEM Partnership School in its first year, and the district would contribute roughly $536,000 to the school's first-year costs.

Some board members said they share educators' excitement about the partnership school, a concept so innovative Birkett said it is garnering national attention from the likes of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama.

"I think we can see the benefit of this and take the leap of faith," board member Mark Rising said. "Initially, it is helping a few, but if you look big-picture, long-term, this is going to be helping many."

Others on the board, including Maria Curry, expressed concerns about the risk of launching the school and the potential for costs to increase over time. Curry said she thinks the district could get greater value by expending its own STEM-focused programs instead of sending funding, top teachers and elite students to a separate school.

"The risk, I think, is pretty substantial," Curry said. "Based on what I've heard, I don't feel comfortable with it."

Kathy Duncan, the district's chief academic officer, said she is confident the school will be able to successfully educate students. The curriculum will differentiate the STEM partnership school from typical science and math programs by integrating engineering principles, supply chain processes and workplace skills used in health sciences, agriculture and manufacturing into everyday classes, said Allison Sherman, director of core curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade.

"The risk is that it's new and innovative and different. The risk isn't that we think it's substandard," Duncan said. "We're not risking that we don't think it's going to work for children."

The District 204 discussion came as school boards from all four districts are beginning to review the costs and structure of the STEM Partnership school. District 204 is set to vote on the agreement at its next meeting Jan. 27.

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