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Tri-State STEM+M finds success in its first year

March 11, 2018 GMT

SOUTH POINT, Ohio — There is no bell that rings at the Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School.

But like clockwork every morning at exactly 7:50 a.m., students file into the small building’s common area for the morning announcements, spoken face-to-face from staff to students before their first classes begin.

Those who want to be there simply are — no coercion of a morning bell needed. Each student, representing 11 local school districts in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, knows why they choose to be the first class to pass through the new academy in South Point. Each has their reason for why they picked it over their public school options.

Concept to reality

After years of conceptual planning and harried preparation, the long talked-about Tri-State STEM+M is finally in the midst of its first school year. A public high school free to Ohio students, the school focuses on preparing students for higher education in the STEM fields - an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The ”+M” tacked to end stands for “medicine,” a major emphasis, as it’s the region’s largest employment field.

Tri-State STEM+M is the brainchild of the late Scott Howard, the former school superintendent in both Ironton and Chesapeake, as well as in Lake County, Ohio. It was while working in the Cleveland suburbs that Howard discovered the concept of a STEM school, and returned to his native Lawrence County to establish a similar school for southern Ohio. Howard died suddenly in 2016, before the Tri-State STEM+M came to fruition.

But the wheels were set in motion just before his death when he hired Jayshree Shah to be the founding director. Shah, a longtime science teacher at Fairland High School and later administrator at nearby South Point High School, set to work with a skeleton crew of early staff to create the new school’s transdisciplinary curriculum from scratch, rather than one copied from textbooks.

But with the first day just months away, one major problem remained: the school didn’t have a building at the start of 2017. It wasn’t until April that the school purchased its current home right off U.S. 52 with the help of the Lawrence County Economic Development Corporation - a former office space and warehouse still visible in the cubicles students now study in. A massive former loading garage dominates around one-third of the building, which already is smaller than even the tiniest local elementary school.

Tri-State STEM+M currently enrolls only the equivalent of high school freshman and sophomores, dubbed Year 1 and Year 2 in their school, though Shah added they plan to expand to offer four-year diplomas in the coming years.

But at each monthly informational meeting leading up to the first day, nearly every student that attended committed to enrolling, Shah said, and the school’s first year enrollment now stands at just more than 50.

Growing pains, lessons learned

Because the concept was totally new to the students, the first week began with what Shah called “STEM immersion” to acclimate students to how the school operates, what the school’s expectations are, and how lessons are taught through the two foundations of its curriculum: inquiry-based learning and project-based learning. The first week was a brave jump, Shah added, as students were immediately tasked with designing and creating their own furniture in the school’s now-empty warehouse garage.

But some learning gaps quickly showed themselves, Shah said, as the curriculum was first written with the assumption incoming students were already more tech-savvy than they proved to be. Staff had to step back and reinforce some tech basics, such as how to upload a document or electronically submit a file, before work could continue.

“This first cohort, we had lessons to learn and things to tweak, and we did,” Shah said. “But we carried out our transdisciplinary model from a curriculum with every teacher on board, from English to math to art to sciences and so forth.”

Most students weren’t used to this style of schooling, and anxiety began to run high from he amount of work and the school’s high academic standards - 80 percent “mastery” to advance, though Shah said they strive for 90 percent. Large group projects of five to six people were foreign compared to the small, often single-person driven projects of public schools. Sometimes staff had to step back and do a fun assignment, or not assign homework for a week, when stress ran too high.

“It was a transition for them, and there were high anxiety levels because of the amount of work. It’s rigorous, and they had never encountered a rigorous curriculum,” Shah said. “Our expectations were high, and we’re going to keep our expectations high.”

“When the anxiety levels got too high and some students would say they would want to go back to their public schools, we had to make them realize the potential they had reached here and that they are doing good work.”

‘Everything that a school should be’

Tri-State STEM+M’s close-knit student population is a cross-cut of the Tri-State. Students study in 80 to 85 minute classes, though the schedule is fluid to accommodate other classes, guest speakers, remediation or study. Students bring their lunch for a half-hour period, and are picked up by their parents at 3 p.m.

Allison Himes was originally pointed to Tri-State STEM+M by her parents, but the 15-year-old from South Point quickly grew to love it.

“You’re learning a lot more overall, honestly. I’ve learned more here in two semesters than I have at most of my years in public school,” said Himes, who though isn’t yet committed to a STEM field, added the school offers plenty of opportunities to explore different career paths.

Tri-State STEM+M is the first public school experience for 16-year-old Jack Clouse of Huntington, who prior to this year spent his school days first in private school, then through homeschool.

“The school just kind of fits with my personality and how my mind works. It’s not too structured where you’ve got to do this, this, this and this, and there’s no flexibility to where you can’t do what you want to do. You get to do what you want to do.”

While he presently has aspirations toward electrical engineering, Clouse added to Himes’ point that the school exposes students to a variety of science-related passions.

“There’s much more flexibility for that.”

For Anna Holman, public schools often operate counter to the problems they face, both academically and socially. The 17-year-old from Chesapeake added that should you fail a test at Tri-State STEM+M, teachers are more focused on remediation before again moving forward.

“The hands-on stuff actually sticks in your head more,” said Holman, who aspires to be an aerospace engineer with a strong interest in space. “Because we’re doing mastery learning, if you don’t understand, we go back and take the time to learn it so that when we move to the next unit, so you’re not missing little pieces of your foundations.”

Prior to Tri-State STEM+M, Holman spent time in two Ohio school districts as well as a year abroad in Switzerland, but added her current studies top them all.

“The teachers here are the most qualified and dedicated teachers I have ever had, without a doubt. If you’re having problems with school, if you’re having problems at home, they’ll sit down and talk to you.

It’s just everything that a school should be, to put blatantly.”

“It really is,” Clouse added. “That’s completely legit.”

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.