Aurora STEM school to close after 2021-22; districts considering re-imagined partnership

  • The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School in Aurora has offered specialized science, technology, mathematics and engineering curriculum to 200 third- through eighth-graders for the last seven years.

    The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School in Aurora has offered specialized science, technology, mathematics and engineering curriculum to 200 third- through eighth-graders for the last seven years. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/11/2021 7:40 PM

The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School in Aurora is slated to shut down at the end of next academic year, its governing board decided Tuesday in a devastating blow to parents and students who have been fighting to keep the program alive.

Superintendents from three of the four partnering school districts, as well as Aurora University President Rebecca Sherrick, voted to terminate their involvement in the 200-student school -- at least in its existing format.

 

They left the door open for a re-imagined partnership with a broader scope and a greater impact on students and educators.

"That's an important piece, that we moved away from this current model, and we're looking forward to a different partnership that helps promote those ideals of greater student exposure to STEM and creating more expertise throughout our teaching staff," said West Aurora District 129 Superintendent Jeff Craig, chairman of the governing board that comprises Sherrick and the four superintendents.

The details of such a framework are expected to be at the heart of conversations starting this fall, he said. The participating districts -- West Aurora 129, East Aurora 131, Indian Prairie 204 and Batavia 101 -- also are exploring expanding their own internal STEM opportunities.

But several families enrolled in the STEM school said they're gutted by Tuesday's verdict and skeptical of the reasoning behind the facility's impending closure, effective July 1, 2022.

"It's an injustice to our kids and all the kids from the district who can't benefit from this model," Naperville mom Angela Shields said. "We don't feel like this process has been handled above the board. ... We're not giving up."

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She and other parents have urged the governing board to at least allow current students to finish the six-year program, expressing concerns over the disruption to their learning environment.

Since opening on the Aurora University campus seven years ago, the STEM school has offered specialized science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to third- through eighth-graders who are chosen based on a lottery system.

The facility was designed as a laboratory to gather best practices for STEM instruction and disseminate those strategies back to the districts.

Leaders also hoped to broaden STEM-based knowledge across the Fox Valley and potentially boost the local economy, Sherrick said. But the partnership has been complicated in practice.

Officials have commended student and teacher performance, and families frequently praise the STEM school's collaborative educational model. But a recent evaluation of its core purpose showed the school has not been living up to some of its primary goals, district leaders said, prompting them to seek guidance from their respective elected officials on whether to terminate the agreement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Only Indian Prairie opted against withdrawing from the program after a convoluted discussion last month, during which several school board members called the process "flawed." Their split decision was reflected by Superintendent Adrian Talley's lone dissenting vote Tuesday.

Other school officials said they believe the resources put toward the STEM facility could be better spent on advancing programs within their own districts. But they still see value in partnering with one another, local companies and Aurora University.

"That, for me, is the highest goal: to continue to work together as an education community to benefit not just students and teachers and businesses, but benefit our community as a whole," Sherrick said. "That's a privilege that I take very seriously, and that shapes my whole thinking about the STEM school."

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