Indian Prairie board members divided in vote against dissolving STEM school partnership
Frustrated by the process and concerned about the complexity of their decision, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board members have been wrestling with the prospect of withdrawing from the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School in Aurora.
In a convoluted 4-3 vote Monday, they opted against terminating their involvement in the highly touted program. But the issue remains unresolved, they said, with the fate of the STEM school also resting in the hands of their four partners: Batavia District 101, West Aurora District 129, East Aurora District 131 and Aurora University.
Per the agreement, the facility at 405 S. Gladstone Ave. would shut down at the end of the next academic year if at least three of the five entities bow out. Members of the STEM school governing board -- the four superintendents and the college's president -- are slated to make a decision on May 11 based on direction from their respective elected officials.
During Monday's Indian Prairie board meeting, Superintendent Adrian Talley suggested extending the end date to after the 2022-23 school year to provide additional planning time. The move also would mitigate disruption for current students by allowing third-graders to finish elementary school and sixth-graders to complete middle school through the STEM program, he said.
Board members agreed to the two-year timeline, at minimum, saying one year is not enough. But several also urged the STEM school's governing board to go back to the drawing board and create a more thorough and transparent recommendation.
"This process is flawed," board member Justin Karubas said. "There's not enough information. No surveys have been done. There's been no community involvement. I would not want this process to be used as a precedent to close any other school in this district."
Karubas voted against terminating the partnership, along with board President Michael Raczak, Cathy Piehl and Mark Rising, all of whom took issue with the way in which the discussion was brought forward.
Board member Natasha Grover said she voted "yes" to the motion to provide direction on the preferred two-year timeline, should the other partners withdraw.
Board members Susan Demming and Laurie Donahue said they would like to increase the exposure and awareness of STEM programs to a broader spectrum of students. Talley has proposed hiring a coordinator who could help expand STEM opportunities throughout the district.
Located on Aurora University's campus, the STEM school offers specialty science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to about 200 third- through eighth-graders. The partnership costs each public school district upward of $500,000 per year.
Though the students have performed well academically, district leaders say, some of the facility's primary goals have garnered underwhelming results over the last seven years.
But several students and parents who addressed the Indian Prairie board Monday praised the collaborative educational model and questioned the reasoning behind its potential closure.
"We don't understand why this vote is being rushed through this school year after teachers and families only learned about it three months ago," parent Marea Clement of Aurora said. "We just want some transparency and inclusion as stakeholders before such a drastic measure as dissolving the STEM school occurs."
The facility was initially designed as a "laboratory school" to gather best practices for STEM instruction and disseminate those strategies back to the districts. While it has been a "wonderful educational experiment," Raczak said, "there was never a promise to keep the school open forever."
Hurt and confused by the proposal at hand, fourth-grader Aidan Neal pointed to the commitment made by students, parents, teachers and school officials alike.
"I do experiments, too," he said. "If they don't work, I try something new, not throw them away."