Cary News

STEM programs could fill empty seats in Cary schools

Next year’s East Cary Middle School students will help university researchers track the mysterious origins of a gecko that calls the local campus home. Administrators hope the program will draw students to science, and parents to the under-enrolled school.

The middle school, along with Weatherstone Elementary in Cary, is among four set to join Wake County’s “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” program in the coming year. A major factor in the county’s assignment of the new program, officials said, was that the schools fill relatively few of their seats.

East Cary Middle School was the fourth most-under-enrolled middle school in the county, using only 63 percent of its capacity in the 2010-11 school year, while Weatherstone at 72 percent was among the least-utilized elementary schools. Average enrollment for lower schools is 85 to 90 percent.

“We’ve had just fantastic experiences, and yet it doesn’t seem to be something that other people are interested in attending,” said Leslie Blake, mother of a rising second-grader and kindergartener at Weatherstone.

She and other parents hope the schools can break the trend with the new offerings. In their first year with the STEM program, East Cary and Weatherstone will have use of a technology-focused staffer, training for teachers and 30 iPads per grade, with a first-year startup cost of about $129,000 per school. The program, said East Cary principal Kerry Chisnall, will give the school a new paradigm.

“Of course, these days we’re so focused on student achievement, and ensuring our students are successful on standardized testing,” he said. “With STEM, your focus also has to be on producing students that are ready for the workforce.”

In context

To prepare for real-world jobs, teachers will try to put the sciences in real-world contexts. At East Cary Middle School, the 40-acre campus itself will become a laboratory. The marshy land of the year-round school is home to Mediterranean geckos, a horny skinned, bulge-eyed reptile that’s relatively rare here.

“The hypothesis is that they escaped from a science lab, several years ago, perhaps several decades ago,” principal Chisnall said. “We’re going to allow students to collaborate with (N.C. State University) researchers to see why they have flourished, and how the species is affecting the environment around them.”

The county is expanding its STEM curriculum as budgets allow and hopes to reach almost all of its schools eventually, according to assistant superintendent Sylvia Wilkins. But with just 24 schools in the program, the designation is rare for now.

The program, Chisnall hopes, will be a magnet for parents, who this year gained much greater power to choose their students’ schools.

Enrollment quandary

There are no clear-cut reasons to explain Weatherstone and East Cary Middle’s under-enrollment, but it’s clear the schools are fighting a few tides..

Weatherstone’s student count dropped by 200 between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, bringing it from full capacity to significant underutilization. PTA President Beth Satterfield attributes the change to additional competition from private and public schools alike, plus a slowdown in the real estate market.

East Cary Middle, meanwhile, has grown its enrollment over the last few years, but hasn’t kept up with the extra capacity that came with its conversion to a year-round school. The school can fit up to 1,300 students, and probably needs at least 850 to operate efficiently. Its current enrollment is about 780, Chisnall said.

“As principal, I feel compelled to do a much better job of communicating to the community how great our school is,” said the new principal. “This is a bit of a hidden treasure.”

The school’s STEM designation came too late to sway parents for next year, but the school already is seeing better numbers, he said. That’s a relief for parents and students, because declining numbers can result in transfers of well-loved teachers.

At Weatherstone, the PTA is setting aside more money for Internet-enabled televisions and brainstorming ideas for the STEM curriculum, which the school will flesh out in the coming year.

“Before, we just had that traditional curriculum, and that’s not as attractive to some people,” said Satterfield, the PTA president. “STEM gives us some structure to do some really great things, some of which we might have been doing already. It makes us more marketable.”