Innovation Academy sixth-grade teacher Felicia Kellner holds an iPad synced to display the screen to the front of the classroom Tuesday. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — STEM schools — with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math — can’t leave out history and English, according to the principal of Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee.
And above all, Sandy Watkins said the hands-on style of STEM must include collaboration of students and individualized instruction from teachers if it is to work.
And she’s throwing in a good dose of community service to boot.
Innovation Academy, a joint effort of the Kingsport and Sullivan County school systems, finished its second week of operation Friday.
It is a STEM platform school serving 160 city and county students with the help of $1 million in federal Race to the Top funds won by Tennessee and administered by the Battelle Memorial Foundation and $500,000 that went to East Tennessee State University to be the innovation hub for the school, providing in-service and sharing best practices throughout public schools in the region.
“I think we are finally teaching the way we should have always taught,” Watkins said Wednesday at the school.
The intense focus on test scores in the past decade or so has in a way overtaken education, but she said if teaching and learning are done the right way — getting students motivated to learn — improved test scores surely will follow.
“You can’t just teach out of the textbook,” Watkins said. “You have to apply what the students have learned.”
For instance, on Aug. 10 teachers from other middle schools — mainly from Washington County, Tenn. — came to share what they learned in an aerospace training program. Students got to build and shoot rockets.
“It’s amazing what is yet to come. I think our students will be ready for it,” Watkins said of the projected 21st century demand for those ready for a STEM career.
“But we’re not just about STEM,” Watkins said. “We’re about the whole child.”
Watkins said she wants to be sure students not only learn science and math but also English and history, as well as the importance of communications and giving back to the community.
Another component of the STEM school is collaboration, including how to handle disagreements on different ways to solve problems and the importance of helping other students who need it.
“I learned early on in the elementary programs that you don’t have to tell the students (to help others) after a week,” Watkins recalled of his time as STEM coordinator for the county system.
“They automatically help that child,” Watkins said. “I don’t know when this happened to our society, this not helping each other.”
Learning a ‘swish’ away
Still, the school is different and pushing the envelope with technology. Every student will be issued a school-owned iPad.
Watkins said teachers and students will be able to “swish” an iPad and have their image come up on the monitor hooked up to the Apple TV monitor.
Students were trained Thursday on how to use the iPads, although students will not be able to take the school-owned devices home until the two systems determine how the school can comply with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act when students are off campus using Wi-Fi without the filters of the school systems.
Sixth-grade reading and language arts teacher Felicia Kellner said the Apple TV system works great.
Eastman Chemical Co., which along with the Domtar paper mill and Wellmont Health System is a business partner with the school, has provided iPad covers for staff and students.
The first week of school, STEM professionals from the three business partners told students about their career possibilities and what was needed for specific careers.
New school’s challenges
The STEM school is not immune from problems of traditional schools and, in some cases, has problems others don’t have because it is a joint school serving both a compact population in the city and a far-flung population going to the eastern end of the county.
Watkins said school traffic was unexpectedly clogged a few times the week of Aug. 6 and again Aug. 13, the first day of school for the county system.
Bus transportation has worked out OK. Some students arrive at school in cars driven by parents or family, while others arrive by two city buses or two Sullivan County buses.
City students come from and return to either Robinson or Sevier middle schools, the city base schools, while county students come from the Sullivan South zone from either Colonial Heights or Sullivan K-8 via a shuttle bus or find a way to get to Blountville Middle from the zones of Sullivan Central or Sullivan East high schools.
In the afternoons, the county students leave Innovation Academy at 12:20 p.m. to go to North Middle for two periods of related arts and then travel back to their home school for pickup and/or after-school activities.
Watkins said she hopes the school adds the eighth grade at the current location next school year. She said there is room for the eighth grade plus related arts, but not room for grades 6-9 and related arts.
The Innovation Academy governing body will decide how the school moves to its eventual grades 6-12 offerings. For high school, Watkins said she can envision three paths for Innovation students: pursuing a career technical education at Sullivan North High, Dobyns-Bennett High or another school; going through an Early College program with Northeast State Community College and getting an associate’s degree and high school diploma in four years; or taking Advanced Placement and/or dual enrollment courses with ETSU and/or Northeast State.