STEAM Academy heats up

Published 9:40 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the waterfront at Fort Monroe on Thursday, where they hope to establish Virginia’s first public boarding school specializing in science, technology, engineering and math, Suffolk residents M. Caroline Martin and Judy Stewart, along with architect C. Michael Ross, celebrate a favorable decision by the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees.

A decision Thursday to give a public boarding school specializing in science, technology and related subjects the option to use a 290,000 square-foot site at Fort Monroe has boosted plans, led by two Suffolk citizens, for Virginia’s first such institution.

Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees members unanimously supported signing a memorandum of understanding that agrees to give the Virginia Science, Technology, Engineering and Applied Mathematics (STEAM) Academy a two-year option for the site.

“We have waited, and we have worked diligently to get to this point,” M. Caroline Martin, Suffolk’s 2012 First Citizen, said after the decision.

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Martin is a partner on the project with Judy Stewart, an education consultant who moved to Suffolk from Illinois a decade ago and who drew up the STEAM Academy plans.

“This is a monumental move, as Fort Monroe has been our preferred site,” Martin continued. “We are working closely with (architectural firm) HBA, which is experienced in designing STEAM schools. There is an additional challenge, as we have an historical site.”

Martin and Stewart met while serving together on nonprofit boards. Stewart raised the idea of a residential academy two years ago.

The academy would induct its first cohort of ninth- through 12th-grade students in fall 2014. A camp is scheduled for next summer to introduce the concept to parents and students.

This year, the General Assembly awarded the academy a $200,000 planning grant, and memoranda of understanding have been signed with various other partners.

College-level education partners, four of which have signed MOUs, include Virginia Tech, the Virginia Military Institute, the College of William & Mary, Tidewater Community College, Eastern Virginia Medical School, the universities of Virginia and Maryland-Baltimore County and Old Dominion and Norfolk State universities.

Meanwhile, an MOU was signed in December with Jefferson Science Associates/Jefferson Lab in Newport News.

“It has been modeled on the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, the oldest of the 19 state residential public STEM high schools in the country,” Martin told Thursday’s meeting.

Martin extolled the potential benefits of an academy to the commonwealth, saying that the North Carolina school returns half a billion dollars to that state for every $20 million spent on it.

“They take credit in helping develop the Research Triangle,” she said.

The Fort Monroe MOU would allow studies that will help further develop plans for the academy, Martin said, as well as help win additional support from the state legislature.

Last year, Fort Monroe was both disestablished by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission and declared a national monument by President Barack Obama.

The authority is steering its mixed-use residential, commercial and recreational space redevelopment.

A consultant told the meeting that attracting institutional users like the STEAM Academy would help market the site and offset costs when they take over buildings and possibly pay maintenance fees for the precinct — one of the best ways to overcome a projected budget hole in the redevelopment.

The academy also “helps us improve our relationship with the Commonwealth of Virginia,” authority Executive Director Glenn Oder said.

“The reason of a school being here allows us to be in the state budget for a long time to come…. It (an MOU) would allow us to market the STEAM Academy.”

A summer residential academy is also planned for higher-achieving sixth through eighth graders, as well as professional development for teachers and administrators and on-demand digital classroom instruction across the commonwealth.

The 2014 planned first intake is for 250 ninth-graders, Martin said, with 250 more to be added each year, reaching an eventual 1,000 students in 2018.