A regional STEM academy in North Georgia is one step closer to reality after the Hall County Schools Board of Education voted to move forward with the charter application last week.
The Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics academy at North Hall High School will house students from three counties and is slated to open next fall.
“There’s been a push for more of those types of focused academies and we tried to figure out how we could incorporate that into one of our existing schools,” said Nath Morris, chairman of the board.
The STEM academy will put a greater emphasis on math and science, ideally providing students who wish to pursue a career in engineering or an equivalent field a launching point.
“I think this is the next natural progression for us to create something that really focuses on the math and sciences,” said Joe Gheesling, North Hall principal. “I think the STEM academy is certainly the way to go.
“It’s going to really challenge the kids and it’s going to put them in a position to be competitive at virtually any college or university when they leave.”
Gheesling said the academy will likely accommodate between 30 and 35 students in its first year. Those students will have the choice of two areas of focus: engineering and biotechnology.
More programs will be added as the academy grows.
The school will be open to students from Hall County, as well as Lumpkin and White counties. Some distance learning, including videoconferencing, may be employed, but students may have to take classes on campus, too.
Gheesling said many of the details, including the application process for students, transportation issues and classroom teachers are still being hashed out, but North Hall will house the school and has set aside a wing to do so.
“It’s going to be a school within a school,” he said. “All of North Hall High School will not be going charter. There will be a charter component to North Hall High School, though, and that will be the STEM academy.”
The academy may use instructors from North Georgia College & State University to teach some of the more advanced classes.
Last year, Hall schools received a $50,000 grant through the Race to the Top plan to help make the academy a reality.
“We got a fairly substantial planning grant,” said Superintendent Will Schofield. “I think one of the reasons it stood out to the governor’s office is that it was a regional STEM academy.”
Schofield said that although the basis of the charter is advanced math and science, there will also be an emphasis placed on the arts and technical reading and writing.
“We’re aware of the fact that with how rapidly this world is changing we owe it to our boys and girls to always be thinking about the best way to meet their needs,” he said. “We’re thinking what these kids need to be successful in the 21st century and we certainly think this is a step in the right direction.”
The school’s charter application should be processed by the state in time for next school year, but Schofield said the schools will start offering prerequisite classes this year.
It will be open to eighth- and ninth-graders to start and as they get deeper into the requisite program, it will open up to more grades.
Gheesling said in four years there could be as many as 150 students in the program.
“I would love to see it grow to the point where we’d have to build a new building up here and have a true stand-alone STEM academy up here,” he said. “To me, that would be terrific.”