FORT WORTH — One in an occasional series about the Nov. 5 Fort Worth school district bond election.It’s not that students in Fort Worth schools lack opportunities to learn higher-level science and math.Engineering classes are offered at Paschal High School, and Southwest High has an Academy of Petroleum Engineering and Technology. The Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences focuses on training tomorrow’s health professionals.But as technology advances at a rapid pace, schools must do more to ensure that their graduates keep up, district leaders say.On Nov. 5, voters will be asked to approve spending $17 million for a centralized Fort Worth campus where students in grades six through 12 will receive training in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.The goal, administrators say, is to create an atmosphere that encourages exploration.“We want them in that environment, where it’s celebrated, but also the high expectations and the atmosphere of excellence — and any child from any background can rise to that occasion,” said Michael Sorum, deputy superintendent for leadership, learning and student support services for the Fort Worth school district.The STEM academy is part of Proposition 2 in the district’s $490 million bond referendum. The bulk of the estimated $73.3 million proposition would pay for a new performing and fine arts academy, at about $40 million.Proposition 1 would pay for classroom additions, security and technology. A third proposition asks voters to approve about $30 million for nonconstruction expenses such as replacement of school buses and band uniforms.District leaders said the STEM academy will allow students to start earlier on rigorous math and science tracks so they can take more advanced courses as juniors and seniors, Sorum said.“You have to have discipline and training from the earliest stages,” he said.The STEM academy proposals reflect a nationwide trend of offering specialized choices for students. An estimated 500 to 600 students would be served, drawn from the district’s 85 elementary schools, Sorum said.Both the STEM academy and the performing arts and fine arts campus would fall under the district’s Gold Seal Programs of Choice, which let students choose education tracks based on their interests.The district’s estimated cost for the STEM academy includes about $4.5 million to buy an existing building downtown.Some have questioned the need for a central campus and wondered whether it would siphon the best math and science students from traditional campuses. Sorum said the pool of potential students is big enough to include those interested in attending a specialized campus and those who want to attend their neighborhood school.The application process for the STEM school has not been established. Officials will use multiple academic measures as well as asking students to describe why they are interested, Sorum said.STEM academy students would learn and experiment in a school with traditional classrooms and space for testing ideas or projects, Sorum said. Transportation would be provided.Partnerships with area colleges and universities would also be incorporated.One of the newest STEM campuses in North Texas, Cannon Elementary in the Grapevine-Colleyville district, was originally a traditional elementary school. After a two-year phase-in, it opened this school year as a STEM campus.“It is important to get students interested in math, science and technology early, and to foster problem-solving and critical thinking, which are embedded skills necessary in STEM education,” said Tony Zahn, director of science and instructional technology for Grapevine-Colleyville. “Regardless of what they do in their careers, whether it is STEM-related or not, they’re going to need those STEM skills, and we want to establish those foundations at a younger age so students have the best opportunity for success.”Cannon students will receive iPads as part of a one-to-one technology effort, Zahn said. The district is working to provide STEM learning in other ways, he said, such as offering more advanced physics in high school and building a “K through 12” pipeline with programs at other elementary and middle school campuses.The Education Department predicts that the nation’s need for computer systems analysts, systems software developers, medical scientists and biomedical engineers will swell by 2020. The nation’s rankings of 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations are not acceptable, the government has said.Area educators said the answer lies in local schools. Zahn said STEM education is an investment in tomorrow’s job force.“As a nation, we are not producing enough STEM graduates,” he said. “Those jobs exist now and the need continues to grow, but if we don’t have qualified graduates to fill them, then those jobs and opportunities are going to continue going to other countries.” This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1