Theresa Kelly Gegen is the editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
Unique in Illinois, and founded upon collaboration of public school districts, Aurora University, corporate partners, local non-profits and the community, the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School enrolls students in grades 3-8 in four Aurora-area elementary school districts.
“Everything about this school is collaborative and has been from the very beginning,” said Sherry Eagle, executive director of the Institute of Collaboration at Aurora University. “That’s the uniqueness about this partnership. The boards of education –from school districts and the University’s board of trustees – started together and worked together, developed a governance agreement and set it into action.”
The school’s vision statement says, “Arising from innovation and collaboration, the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School is a nationally recognized model inspiring students to transformative academic achievement in science and mathematics, employing the community as a laboratory to create leaders of tomorrow and improving workforce development. This vision creates a new model of education focused on learning all content through a science, mathematics, engineering, and technology context.”
The Dunham Fund initiated the effort in 2008. The fund “supports organizations that work to make the world a safer and more comfortable place for mankind to live and prosper, giving special consideration to Aurora area educational organizations.”
A host of corporate and non-profit partners provide both funding and innovation to bring STEM to the school’s labs and classrooms: Cabot Microelectronics, Caterpillar Foundation, Commonwealth Edison, Dart Foundation, Exelon Foundation, Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Nicor Gas, Tellabs Foundation, VVF, and Waste Management, Inc.
Section 105 ILCS 5/10-22.22e in the Illinois School Code authorizes the partnership school. It allows two or more contiguous school districts to “jointly operate, through an institution of higher education located in the municipality, a science and mathematics partnership school for serving some or all of grades kindergarten through 8 th grade.”
The law became part of the school code in 2014 and the school opened that August. Behind that law is a powerful example of working together, across districts, education levels, and the Aurora-area community. The original districts include Aurora East USD 131, Indian Prairie CUSD 204, and Aurora West USD 129. Batavia USD 101 entered the agreement for the current school year. Each school sends 50 students and two teachers to the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, and what participants are discovering is a win-win situation.
“The law established partnership schools, with two or more school districts, a university, and a community,” said Eagle. “We added the private sector component.”
Third- through eighth-grade students with interests in science, technology, engineering, and math have a place to focus on their strengths. The teaching staff is developed by engaging teachers from each partner district for a two-year term while they complete University courses in math and science education. Teachers are covered by their home district’s bargaining units through their appointment, and return to teacher leader positions at their schools when their term ends. The district administrations and boards of education have collaborated with Aurora University to develop the governance proposal and the curriculum. Corporate sector partners bring real-world applications to the classrooms and laboratories, engaging the future workforce.
Eagle notes that the partnership includes schools with high poverty levels, and schools without.
“A collaboration like this – people thought it could never happen,” Eagle recalled. “Well, it did. This could be done anywhere. It does take a future-looking board from the development stage on.”
The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School is located on the Aurora University campus. Facilities, equipped with the latest technology, include a tech center and a greenhouse, in addition to classrooms and meeting spaces for multiple generations of students. Instructional expenses are covered by district per-capita budgets, with the University funding ongoing operational costs.
“What we’re proving is that you can begin to be creative in the current public education climate,” Eagle said.
More information about the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School is available at stem.aurora.edu/.