Five years with groundbreaking Westminster school

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 11/5/18

STEM Academy is a Westminster Public Schools’ gem It was the first Innovation School for the-then Adams 50 School District in 2013. Initially, the Colorado STEM Academy had 187 students, grades …

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Five years with groundbreaking Westminster school

Posted

STEM Academy is a Westminster Public Schools’ gem

It was the first Innovation School for the-then Adams 50 School District in 2013.

Initially, the Colorado STEM Academy had 187 students, grades three through six, and ten certified staff.

The district added seventh graders in 2014 and 8th grade students again in 2015. Kindergarten-through-second grade students joined CSA in 2016.

Today, Principal Brenda Martin proudly tells me that the Academy is teaching and motivating 385 students from Kindergarten through eighth graders — with a waiting list.

Approximately 55 percent of the students are in-district with 45 percent students attracted from other school districts.

Bringing in those out-of-district students was one of the original reasons to establish STEM and things have been humming at their two building campus, with 23 certified staff along with eight classified personnel. The Academy’s younger grades occupy the former Crown Pointe Charter School building with the higher grades located in the south end of Hidden Lake High School building.

Simple approach, but fascinating

I am sure you have heard the STEM acronym numerous times, but do you know the four basic areas of academic concentration? They are science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Martin is quick to point out that art, music and literacy are included in school’s competency based education and students progress at their own pace.

The Colorado STEM Academy brochures stress “working closely with teachers, students progress to new objectives based upon individual learning needs. Enabling individuals to spend the optimal amount of time on each topic promotes deeper learning.”

The approach to teaching the STEM courses is fascinating in my opinion. The key focuses are to develop learners with critical thinking and academic skills using project-based learning.

For example, one fairly simple assignment was to make wooden bird houses. This project entailed using engineering, technology and mathematics to design, measure, cut and assemble the bird houses. The students apply these principles as they complete the project and at the same time have fun doing hands-on applications.

An assignment for the younger students was to design and build a house for “the three little pigs.” They had to choose building materials and engineer the structure so that it would withstand the wind which came from a small leaf blower. So, when some of the houses were blown apart, the students were challenged to re-design and re-build in a different way.

Boy, would I have enjoyed learning that way when I was in elementary school back in the day!

A stellar academic track record

Students STEM Academy students have improved every year according to the state’s own criteria for each of the five years the school’s been in existence, Martin admints modestly.

In fact, Colorado STEM Academy ranks number one with a state ranking of 88 out of 100 for all STEM schools in the northern metro area. In addition, this school is the first STEM program in the state of Colorado that is competency based.

In addition to academics, the school offers before and after school programs such as art, tennis, spelling bees, physical education, music and technology.

The school’s curriculum includes a unique block called WIN which stands for “What I Need.” It covers social and emotional learning which teaches the students such things as respect, nutrition and how to meet and greet people. Special education support is also offered.

An Adams County kind of person

Principal Martin stresses the success of the STEM program is truly a “team effort.” The entire staff has bought into the teaching approach and supports each other. She calls her staff “the best staff in the state working for the kids.”

If you wonder how Martin found herself in charge of creating the STEM program and launching the Academy in 2013, it’s in her background. She received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Western State University in 2001 and has taught second through fourth grders in the Adams 12 Five Star School District, until coming to Westminster Public Schools to launch the STEM program. During her teaching years, she earned a master’s degree in education design from the University of Northern Colorado. In 2014, she received her principal’s license from the state of Colorado. At CSA, she started as an instructional coach, later became assistant principal and she is now in her third year as principal.

Other innovation schools

In addition to the Colorado STEM Academy, Westminster Public Schools has two other Innovation Schools. The second one to be approved and implemented is the Westminster Academy for International Studies.

More recently, a new designated Innovation School debuted — the Marzano Academy at Flynn Elementary School. Such Innovation School designation requires both the local school board and State Board of Education approval. The designation allows more flexibility in how teaching is done and can accelerate learning.

An opportunity to attend

The Colorado STEM Academy in Westminster takes student applications in January of each year and announces the results of their lottery approach selections in March. Martin pointed out that they do have a few openings during the school year when the families of students move out of the area.

Stem Academy is a shining example

As I stated in the title of my column, the Colorado STEM Academy is a true gem. Their teaching approach is exciting, creative, challenging and fun plus the students have access to various technology. 3-D printers, laser engravers, robotics and computers are offered at an early age - all important tools for the STEM students and curious students.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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