Students, families question decision to close Aurora STEM school
In the two years since he was chosen to attend the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School in Aurora, fifth-grader Dylan Shields has felt more challenged, more engaged, more confident than in any other educational environment.
His mom, Angela, has noticed it, too: The way Dylan jumps out of bed in the morning excited to go to school and comes home showing off his handmade projects; how he isn't afraid to speak in front of an audience and views failure as a steppingstone toward success.
That mindset and those learning experiences -- not to mention the close friendships -- are what students stand to lose when the STEM school shuts down at the end of the 2021-22 academic year, families say. And though the four partnering school districts and Aurora University are eyeing expanded STEM opportunities and continued collaboration, Angela Shields says nothing can replicate the unique educational model that has allowed her son to thrive.
"It's bustling and busy and energetic, and that works so well for Dylan. It has exceeded my expectations," the Naperville mom said. "I don't see how going from what they know now back to any kind of traditional classroom, even if there is enhanced STEM content, will be comparable."
Located on the Aurora University campus, the STEM school offers specialized science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to about 50 third- through eighth-graders from each participating district: Indian Prairie 204, West Aurora 129, East Aurora 131 and Batavia 101.
The facility opened seven years ago as a laboratory for developing best practices for STEM instruction and disseminating that knowledge back to the districts. But despite the academic success of its students, the school has fallen short in fulfilling the entirety of its mission, governing board members said, leading to their 4-1 vote last week to end the program on July 1, 2022.
The four district superintendents and Aurora University President Rebecca Sherrick are now envisioning a "re-imagined partnership" they hope will reach a greater number of students and educators.
Exactly what that new framework will look like is up in the air, they say, with details expected to be ironed out over the next year. But West Aurora 129 Superintendent Jeff Craig said professional development will be a priority.
"That was one of the primary purposes of this whole project ... was to hone our teacher skillset to bring back to our comprehensive districts. That's the part of the model that really didn't work," he said. "We've been in conversations with the university to say, 'How can we broaden our expertise and our strategies to a lot more teachers in all of our districts?'"
Exposing students to the postsecondary campus and its STEM programming also remains a valuable piece of any continued partnership, Craig said, whether it's after school, on weekends or during the summer.
East Aurora 131 Superintendent Jennifer Norrell said she foresees district leaders continuing to lean on one another as they implement enhanced STEM opportunities within their own schools. In her district, for example, state-of-the-art STEM labs are being built out in each elementary school -- a project that will now be expedited by reallocating resources after the Dunham STEM school shuts down, she said.
The current partnership costs each district roughly $500,000 annually. Craig stressed that it is the school's format, not the financial obligation, that led to its impending closure.
"The model did not allow us to reach our goals," he said. "Money's important, and it's important that we're responsible to our taxpayers, but that's not the reason."
For Batavia 101 Superintendent Lisa Hichens, the lottery system used to select the third-graders who can enroll in the six-year STEM program "breaks my heart," she said, noting she wants to offer similar experiences to more students.
STEM programming and project-based learning practices are likely to be expanded, particularly among elementary students, in Indian Prairie 204, which is in the process of hiring a designated STEM coordinator, Superintendent Adrian Talley said.
In West Aurora schools, a STEM elective has been recently implemented in first through fifth grades, Craig said, and will now be added to kindergarten and sixth grade.
While those are positive steps, parents say, they won't make up for the loss felt by current STEM students when their school closes. Most districts plan to send those kids back to their boundary schools. District 131 is offering a guaranteed spot in the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy.
Either way, Aurora mom Marea Clement said families feel betrayed by the governing board's decision.
"The lack of transparency, the lack of leadership, is disappointing to say the least," she said during last week's meeting. "You have failed your students. You have failed your community."
District leaders say they understand the strong emotions felt by the students, parents and teachers affected by the change, and pledge to "work really hard for all our kids and all of our staff to provide a quality structural environment," Craig said.
But facing the reality of being separated from his friends and removed from a school he adores, Dylan Shields says he knows any other experience "just won't be the same."
"Now that I'm here, I love it," he said. "I don't want to leave."