Shelton: Lexington's STEAM Academy 'is a school for the future'

Molly Toney, right, took a photo of her daughter, Marlowe, 14, on Wednesday at the grand opening of the STEAM Academy at the old Johnson Elementary in Lexington.
Molly Toney, right, took a photo of her daughter, Marlowe, 14, on Wednesday at the grand opening of the STEAM Academy at the old Johnson Elementary in Lexington. Herald-Leader

Lexington's new STEAM Academy got off to a rousing start Wednesday morning as teachers, district officials and community leaders greeted the first 150 ninth-graders with cheers and rattling noisemakers as they marched into the building.

"This is a school for the future, and you will be the pioneers," Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton told students after they assembled in the gymnasium.

STEAM, a joint effort by the Fayette Public Schools and the University of Kentucky, will offer liberal doses of science, technology, engineering, arts and math, while also allowing students to take college courses at UK.

More than 40,000 students went to classes in Lexington on Wednesday as Fayette County schools reopened for 2013-2014. District officials said the first day of school went smoothly, other than a minor collision involving a bicyclist who ran into a school bus.

STEAM, which is patterned after similar schools in other parts of the country, is unlike any other facility in the Fayette system. Officials are billing it as "Kentucky's most innovative school." It is operating at the old Johnson school on East Sixth Street this year.

Mary John O'Hair, dean of the UK College of Education and a prime mover in launching STEAM, was among those waving noisemakers at the new academy Wednesday morning.

"We've looked at other similar schools around the country, but I think this one is unique," O'Hair said. "Most of the others are STEM only. I think this school will definitely have ripple effects in Kentucky and in the country."

STEAM students could earn up to 45 hours of college credit over four years. The academy also will offer new ways of teaching and learning. For example, the curriculum will be based around a series of nine-week "design challenges" in which students will learn academic concepts, then apply them through real-world projects in the community.

Nicholas Nightenhelsen, 14, a member of the first class, said Wednesday that the new school's approach prompted him to opt for STEAM rather than attending Bryan Station High School this year. He likes science and computers and is interested in becoming a small-animal veterinarian.

"It just seemed like a better alternative for me, and a change for a better education," he said. "It's pretty exciting."

STEAM Director Tina Stevenson also was looking forward to Wednesday morning.

"I was here until midnight last night, and when I got home I was too excited to sleep," she said. "This is a big moment, because I grew up in this neighborhood.

"I lost my mother about 10 years ago, and I found myself talking to her as I drove in this morning. 'Momma, here we go.'"

The idea for STEAM began with a conversation two years ago between Shelton and Kentucky sports media mogul Jim Host.

"He planted the idea of a partnership between the school system and the university, and now here we are opening the school," Shelton said. "I really believe it's going to be one of the most innovative schools you'll ever see."

Fayette officials visited STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools in various cities in search of ideas for the school. Ultimately, they decided to add "arts" to the program and the name became "STEAM."

One example of how the arts will fit in was evident Wednesday in the presence of Gary Fisher, who stood outside the school beating out rhythms on a set of steelpan drums. The instrument, created in Trinidad, was originally made from old oil drums.

Fisher, who is from Washington, D.C., will teach music at STEAM this year, and he plans to organize a student steelpan band. Drums for the band already have been ordered from Trinidad, he said.

On the other side of the STEAM spectrum will be Laurie Henry, associate professor of early adolescent literacy at UK. Henry will direct the course that STEAM students will take at UK this fall.

"It's a revamped version of the orientation course that UK freshmen take, which we have updated to be a little more appropriate for high school freshmen," Henry said. "The STEAM students will be using the same text as our UK freshmen."

STEAM students and UK freshmen won't be in the same classroom, but Henry said the plan is to provide plenty of opportunities for them to interact.

After this year, it's expected that STEAM will move to a former supermarket building off South Broadway which the school district intends to buy from the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. The school system will renovate the 44,000-square-foot former market, with STEAM students helping provide design ideas. The location is within walking distance of the UK campus.

Shelton said Wednesday that the school district is negotiating with businesses adjacent to the market about parking and other issues, and that he hopes to submit a purchase contract to the Fayette School Board this month.

STEAM students are selected by lottery from across the district, and anyone can apply. Applications for next year should be available this month, according to Stevenson. Officials have said that the student body makeup will reflect the community's demographics. This year's class is about 58 percent white and 34 percent black, according to the school district. About 49 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch.

"It's not a program intended just for gifted students," Stevenson said. "It's really a program for students and families who want to try a different way of learning."

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