Education officials, corporate partners, school foundation officers and donors were on hand for a huge celebration last week at Henderson Mill Elementary School in the Lakeside High School cluster.
The 48-year-old school was awarded the fifth STEM certification in Georgia. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and, as you can imagine, the curriculum is tailored to better prepare students for the ever-changing and challenging need for more "technocrats" in the United States.
Less obvious is what officials (and indeed Henderson Mill stakeholders) view as STEM's promise to tear down barriers to learning in general, particularly as school populations have become more ethnically and economically diverse. That promise is what Georgia Department of Education division manager Gilda Lyon, CTAE STEM coordinator, said is so exciting about the unique school's accomplishment – being the first "neighborhood STEM" in Georgia.
“This is a model for neighborhood schools across the state. It’s not a magnet or charter (school)," she said.
An article from the state department's website describes the award winning program as including "unique programs such as Engineering is Elementary, Small Fry to Go, a school-wide garden, and LEGO Build to Express, along with incorporating STEM concepts with the common core standards.
The school's location – facing Henderson Mill Road and a short sidewalk stroll from Northlake Mall – is emblematic of a community in historical transition. The mid-1990s saw the beginnings of family income, ethnic and language disparity. In 1996, the school had two students of Hispanic origin, and today more than 25 percent come from non-English speaking households, presenting more than a language barrier but also what is known as a high "mobility" rate – counting students that attend the school less than a school year.
Originally homogeneously white and middle class in both home owning and apartment renting, the zone is now a mixed-income area with strikingly disparate populations. The change has had educational implications as a school that once enjoyed the third highest standardized test scores among a dozen Northlake-area schools. With some traditional families opting for magnet programs and private schools, others have stalwartly decided to embrace the theoretized social advantages of a diverse student base.
One parent confided the STEM effort was a reaction to the unsuccessful attempt to rezone during Lakeside’s redistricting. School leaders are also optimistic about Henderson Mill Elementary's recent Title 1 designation (since more than 40 percent of students receiving free or assisted school lunches) with the financial and infrastructure implications that go beyond federal funding programs. Foundation grants are often predicated on attempts to close the "achievement gap."
The degree of parental leadership at the school and its role within the Northlake community cannot be overstated. The Georgia School of Excellence’s (1999) first school community council, chaired by a prominent Atlanta hospitality executive, worked for a year building consensus for an alternate site design for a new gymnasium, preventing the destruction of the outdoor recreation area. The school's physical education teacher of more than 30 years held four fundraisers, which yielded two Guinness world records, outfitting the gym with $40,000 of additional equipment and two tennis "mini-courts."
The school council led a successful grant effort with the DeKalb County Board of Health to construct a paved running track accessible to a rapidly urbanizing public with demands for recreational space. State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Tucker, lives within a stone’s throw of the school and presented a House resolution commending it at the Oct. 31 ceremony.
Henderson Mill’s state certification is the culmination of a two-year effort to establish four hands-on learning initiatives aimed at different student ages and document their results. The effort resulted in the Henderson Mill Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to STEM fundraising, including grant efforts. Teachers make up a STEM committee and some PTA officers directly support the foundation such as Treasurer Karen Crittendon, a 12-year resident in Briarcrest and controller of the Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs law firm. The school enjoys highly capable, professional parent leadership, including a director at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. One area resident, Debbie Miller, owns STEM Enrichment, which features LEGO Education products for what she calls "in-school field trips" and also supports after-school activities.
The state department's website lists about 20 schools that have STEM programs, but only five are now "STEM schools." Henderson Mill is in some pretty heady company: The Center for Advanced Studies in Science, Math and Technology at Wheeler High School; Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology; Marietta Center for Advanced Academics' and Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology. Principal Rebecca Jackson said the "neighborhood STEM" is easily replicated in the Lakeside zone given the level of volunteerism here. One foundation member said parents from Briarlake Elementary School have already inquired about it. The Lakeside community has a history of educational activism and several schools have nonprofits, including the Lakeside Foundation, formed in 2006.
Tom Doolittle is a Northlake resident and blogger on North Druid Hills-Briarcliff Patch.