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Aurora U. unveils more about STEM school

A view structure under constructithwill become John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

A view of the structure under construction that will become the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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As school boards prepare to discuss an operational agreement for the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, representatives from Aurora University and four local school districts emphasized Thursday that getting to this point has been a feat in collaboration — and patience.

“It’s hard work to do this,” said Indian Prairie 204 Superintendent Kathy Birkett. “It’s much easier for us to do what we’ve done since the 1800s in education. It’s hard work to get this many people to the table, have one idea and then have our students to participate.”

The partnership school, which will be housed at Aurora University and serve 200 third- to eighth-grade students from Indian Prairie 204, Oswego 308, West Aurora and East Aurora school districts, will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

It’s estimated to cost $2.3 million a year to operate, with the school districts sharing about $1.5 million of that and Aurora University picking up the rest of the tab.

It will end up costing districts less to educate students at the STEM school than at their home districts, officials said, due in part to the assistance of local businesses and Aurora University.

“We’ve been very frugal about this,” said Aurora University President Rebecca Sherrick.

Under the current proposed budget, which could be tweaked later by the STEM school’s governing board, districts would spend about $7,500 a student, which is lower than the per capita tuition of each district, according to 2012 figures from the Illinois State Board of Education, the latest available.

That year West Aurora spent $9,308 per student, East Aurora spent $7,661, Indian Prairie spent $9,546 and Oswego spent $7,856.

Aurora University is about $1 million shy of the $12 million it needs to cover construction costs, Sherrick said. The university is talking to a foundation that specializes in “topping off projects,” Sherrick said, and is seeking donations from alumni who work in Silicon Valley.

She said she expects the university will raise the money it needs in time for the school’s planned opening in August 2014.

To stay on schedule, construction on the STEM school is continuing during winter months and the university contracted with builders who are familiar with cold-weather projects, Sherrick added.

Bob Vaughan, the executive director of the Dunham Fund, which has given millions to the STEM school project, said Thursday that the fund could give more financial assistance in the future.

“We fund a lot of things but nothing is more important than this project to the Dunham Fund,” Vaughan said. “This is our marquee project.”

District and university leaders said that the partnership school would likely serve as a model for other communities that want to do similar work throughout the country and praised the effort as an example of how collaboration among various parties — including elected officials, businesses, nonprofits, higher education, public schools and unions — is possible.

“It’s about creating a system that will transform the community,” Sherrick said.

The district and university officials met with reporters ahead of meetings on Jan. 13 and Jan. 21 at which school board members from the four districts will discuss the operating agreement.

Already, some school board members have asked questions about the varying staff and student selection criteria and the lottery that will occur if a district receives more applicants than slots for the STEM school.

“They will put our feet to the fire to make sure we have everything together,” Birkett said of the school boards.

Sherry Eagle, the executive director of Aurora University’s Institute for Collaboration, said the goal is to have the agreement approved by school boards by February or March so that student and teacher selection can begin. The goal is to have staff and students know if they’ve been selected for the school by April or May, Eagle said.

Aurora University’s earlier goal was to have school boards approve the operating agreement by October.

Sherrick said while there have been questions about whether the timetable had “slipped,” she said it had not. The university and districts took the time needed to get input from “all the right voices,” she said.

The school districts plan to host four meetings for students and parents and four meetings for staff to inform them about the selection process, which is different at each district. Information about the selection process also will be posted on Aurora University and the districts’ websites, as well as conveyed to parent groups.

It’s expected that each district will accept 50 students, and that each year a new group of third-graders will be selected. If a student can no longer attend the STEM school, the home district would have the discretion to fill that slot with another student.

Both Eagle and Sherrick said based on interest, they anticipated it would not be difficult to fill the 200 slots.

“We think probably there will be a lottery for each grade,” Eagle said.

The university is already in the process of recruiting a director who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the STEM school. The goal is to recruit that person from within the four partner districts, Sherrick said, though he or she will be an employee of Aurora University.

The school’s curriculum “will infuse manufacturing, engineering and design principles into student learning experiences,” according to a brochure about the school. The curriculum was developed by educators as well as people working in STEM fields and will be aligned to the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards.

“This has so many implications as far as giving our students the opportunities to do real-world problem-solving,” said East Aurora’s Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Beatrice Reyes Childress.

“We’ve been disconnected from the world of work for far too long,” added West Aurora Superintendent James Rydland.

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