STEM-ING THE TIDE

Stratford STEM Magnet High School starts over to revolutionize Nashville’s workforce, with or without college

  • In May, a demolition crew will enter Stratford High School to rip out the past.
          As part of a $20 million facelift, workers will be replacing the outdated HVAC systems, windows from the 1950s, asbestos floors, and energy-inefficient ceilings. The work also symbolizes ripping out another, more notorious piece of the school’s recent past: Until 2010, Stratford, at the corner of Preston Drive and Porter Road in Inglewood, wasn’t the type of school to which parents wanted to send their children. And East Nashville residents, if they could afford not to, didn’t.
         A quick Web search reveals just how bad problems were at Stratford. Thefts. Stabbings. Rapes. In 2006, 772 of Stratford’s 993 students — 78 percent — were defined as “truant,” meaning they’d tallied five or more unexcused absences. It was the highest percentage of any Metro Nashville Public School, and Metro Police has long said it believes in a link between out-of-school teens and increased crime levels. That year, the most likely time for an East Nashville juvenile to commit a violent crime was on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday between 10 and 11 a.m.
          But this isn’t a story about where Stratford High School, which died of asphyxiation on its own toxic output, has been. Rather, it’s about a new, robust, and smaller experiment called the Stratford STEM Magnet High School, which has partially filled the halls since the 2010-11 school year. In May, when the last of Stratford’s ignoble heritage is torn out and thrown into industrial-sized dumpsters, it will physically be free of its past.
         Jennifer Berry, PhD, is chipper and energetic. With brown, chin-length hair and colored hornrimmed glasses, she is eager to be a tour guide for the new Stratford STEM Magnet. Berry is an Academy Coach; “Academy” is the divisional nomenclature for the school’s two main wings of study. Those two wings further subdivide into several “pathways,” each of which are equivalent to a college major.
         The idea of having a major in high school is something universally part of the MNPS system, not just Stratford. Its significance is largely credited with raising attendance rates, lowering discipline incidents, and producing a higher number of graduates citywide. “It’s an interest path, and what does interest do? It gives you buy-in,” Berry says. “Because of the academies of Nashville, there’s been some significant change in each [school] in a positive manner.”
         But while “majoring” in city high schools may which Stratford was once deficient, it’s only the tip of the revolution that this model is banking on.
          STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and this is where Stratford stands apart. A national program, STEM is designed to build the skilled workers of tomorrow in high school rather than college. The way they do this is with a lot of expensive equipment, funded through President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Fund, for which Stratford qualified chiefly due to its contemptible prior performance.
         At Stratford, there are two pathways in the Academy of National Safety and Security Technologies: National Security Technology and Computer Simulation & Game Programming. The Academy of Science and Engineering has pathways in Interdisciplinary Science and Research, Engineering, and Biotechnology.
         In addition to providing students with the skills and expertise required to embark upon a high-paying career path right out of high school, the STEM program also gives students a choice when it comes to another major issue: student loan debt.
         CNN recently reported that the typical undergraduate in the class of 2013 left academia saddled with over $35,000 in college-related debt. A recent report titled “Graduate Student Debt Review” by Jason Delisle, director of the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project, goes even further. Delisle finds that the average college student who then goes on to grad school enters the workforce $57,000 in debt, with the 90th percentile cracking six figures.
         Upon completion of a four-year high school stay at Stratford STEM, a student can achieve national certification in security or biotechnology. Either certification will qualify a job candidate for a career with entry-level salaries starting at $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
         “I was always told that if I had a bachelor’s degree, I was gonna be set for life. Now, you’ve got to have at least a master’s degree,” says Michael Steele, Stratford’s executive principal. “What we have discussed as a team here is that we want our students to be able to make their choice [to go to college] when they graduate from high school.” For decades high schools have been pumping students into college — or being asked why they’re not — feeding an arms race for higher education. Steele is OK with students now having a choice, chiefly because there wasn’t one before.
         After the first two years of feeling out what it meant to be a STEM school, Steele traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Obama’s STEM director along with 15 other school representatives from across the country. Even then the STEM director wouldn’t spell out the finer points of what a STEM school had to be. The brilliant/scary thing about STEM is that it’s left to individual schools to tailor their programs toward the tech industries in their community, responding to what Berry calls “high wage, high skill, high demand” jobs. So, what does Nashville have? Security and healthcare, among others.
         Stratford STEM was practically given a blank check to buy the cutting-edge equipment on which students train. The reason the STEM administrators knew what to buy and what to teach points to another important piece of the STEM puzzle: Business Partners.
         Business Partners — leaders in the various tech and security industries in Nashville, such as Vanderbilt, Nissan, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Universal Robotics, and many others — are the real reason the Stratford experiment hasn’t become a money-pit debacle. These business leaders donate time to work with teachers and administrators, advising them on what they as employers need in their workforce, as well as interacting with the students themselves to provide a tactile example of what a particular career might look like.
         “What’s the whole reason why we have education?” Berry says. “It’s to provide that next supporting workforce out there.” Not that Berry doesn’t want students to go to college, and not that there aren’t opportunities for even those who get jobs out of high school to eventually get more schooling. “We’re just trying to give our students the best opportunity for post-secondary opportunities,” she says.
         Can a high school replace a college? Berry balks at that.
         “We recognize not every student” — and here she catches herself, because it’s still hard to say that not every kid should to go to college; it flies in the face of the modern education system. She rephrases pragmatically: “You’re never going to get a hundred percent of anything to actually occur, so we’re not going to get a hundred percent of our students into college. Fine. But we need a hundred percent of our students to go into the workforce.”
         Would she be OK with a lower percentage of Stratford students going to college if it meant more of them finding jobs? “The reality is we’re trying to prepare students for a life after high school,” says Berry. “It may not include college. But I think that’s the new age of education.”
         Here is what the new age of education looks like: There are colleges with less well-equipped labs than Stratford STEM Magnet. Students are poking at cancer cells. They are extracting DNA. They are watching and smelling and feeling how fast chickens decompose in an interior courtyard a la the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, aka the “Body Farm.” The murder scenes where they conduct forensic investigations have their own classrooms. There are robots and computer-aided drafting and video equipment enough to re-film “Avatar.”
         The community that surrounds Stratford has been slow to come around — once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. But there are changes there, too.
         Principal Steele says the former police commander of the East Precinct told him that since the restructuring of Stratford, property crimes had fallen by 3000 percent. This stat comes close on the heels of Stratford’s exponential rise in attendance.
         “We don’t want to take all the credit for that, but we’re taking credit for encouraging our students to be here and making it interesting while they are here,” Steele says, “as opposed to being out and breaking the law.
         “Let’s be honest; prior to four years ago, people weren’t buying a lot of [Inglewood] houses because if they had children they weren’t going to send them to this school,” he goes on. With East Nashville bolstered by the city-leading elementary school Lockeland Elementary Design Center, as those kids get older they have to go somewhere, and for the first time parents may look at Stratford as a viable option. Berry says that there’s already been a marked increase in students that are zoned in the Stratford area who are returning home from other private or public schools. In the 2012 school year, 35 students returned. This year, it’s 50.
        But the real question is: Will it work? On May 22, Stratford STEM Magnet High School graduates her first pure class: four years of STEM untainted by the legacy of the old system. Will those supposedly high-paying jobs be waiting for them with open arms? When 70 percent of all Tennessee high school graduates require remedial classes in math or English, will Stratford students be ready to enter post-secondary schooling if they so choose?
         On those lucrative jobs, Berry says that no student she knows of has confirmed a job offer. “I don’t think [the seniors] know past May. They’re focusing on graduating.” She also says that only 20 percent of graduates have said they will choose the same major in college as they did in high school.
         How will a new Stratford affect its neighborhood, its property values, and its future homeowners? The jury is still out, and Berry, Steele and the rest of East Nashville are eagerly awaiting the verdict.
         Then again, the verdict may already be in if one chooses to follow the money. Right across the street on Porter, as the old bits of Stratford are thrown into dumpsters, new homes are being built.