SPS partners with ODU for new STEM Academy

Published 7:00 am Friday, January 26, 2024

Suffolk Public Schools announced plans to create a new in-house laboratory elementary school. In a unanimous decision, the board voted to enter into a partnership with Old Dominion University to create a new STEM Academy housed at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

The lab school is described by SPS Chief of Schools Dr. Stenette Byrd III as a “college partnership laboratory school in the Commonwealth established by a public institution of higher education.” Byrd provided further details on the new academy.

“In short, it is a college preparatory school that is created by a university within the state of Virginia and they’re all about trying to provide instruction in creative ways for students and Preschool through Grade 12. In Suffolk, we’re exploring a school within a school model … to be located at Booker T. Washington Elementary School,” Byrd said. “I do want to stress that if approved for this project, the 2024-2025 school year, which is next year, would be used for research and development purposes. The school would not officially open until the fall of 2025.”


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Byrd said ODU’s role in the project will be to act as the “fiscal agent.”

“It will manage the funds for the grant. The STEM laboratory school will use ODU’s expertise in resources in STEM learning, design thinking and hands-on learning. This includes support from various departments at the university, like the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, the Institute for Design, Thinking and Leadership Development, the School of Data Sciences, the ODU Tech Talent Pipeline, The Department of Computer Sciences and School of Cybersecurity,” he said. “This lab school aims to offer strong hands-on STEM learning experiences for our elementary school students.”

Byrd further detailed that the division’s role is to provide the location, noting Booker T. Washington Elementary School’s location is ideal for transportation and the school’s capacity and layout. He said the school’s goal is to “build STEM learners at an early age” and even consider expanding to middle schools in the future. 

SPS Chief Academic Officer Dr. Okema Branch noted that they have proposed the program having 20 students per grade level from grades K-5 for a total of 120 students. She also detailed that they must have a Governing Board and admission criteria.

“ … Lab schools are not new, but they are newer to our area and as you may recall, Gov. Youngkin actually proposed this for us to work with more colleges and universities to create lab schools to provide more research and evidence-based opportunities and research at the collegiate level to support the work within our Pre-K through 5 institutions,” Branch said. “Tonight we are seeking School Board approval to proceed because the grant application is due February 1st. This is the last meeting for you all in this setting before that time frame and all this is our proposal to the state, and we’re working with Old Dominion University daily to put our grant together.”

After the presentation, School Board Chair Karen Jenkins expressed her excitement for the project.

“We’re in the business of doing things first,” Jenkins said. “ … Our students will benefit from it and it’s because we have staff, we have employees that think outside of the box and create things and go and look for things that our students can be a part of that is not the norm.”

Board Member Judith Brooks-Buck asked how the lab school would be financially sustained after the four-year grant runs out, SPS Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III provided more details.

“It’s two parts, you get grant funds from the state for implementation and then anything that is purchased, any additional equipment, any additional resources all come from ODU. The conversations that we’ve had with Old Dominion University is they have put into their budget for us to be able to sustain this right now for a long time,” Gordon said. 

Reflecting that he had conversations with both Board Members Tyron Riddick and Brooks-Buck herself during their previous service as Board Chair and noted all three of their concerns for the sustainability of the funding model, Gordon detailed that after tweaks were made to the funding that he applied.

“It was our goal to be able to bring this to the board with virtually zero impact on the school division when it comes to money. Five years from now, ODU has basically informed us that they will be able to continue the commitment because then it will just be based on adding whatever the latest innovation and technology is to support the program because the implementation will be done,” Gordon said.

Upon application selection, Byrd noted that SPS students will also be chosen via a “lottery model,” with information sessions throughout the city ahead of the program. Byrd recommends ODU and SPS staff to make up the board for the program. 

“The staff chosen to lead the programming will actually work directly with Old Dominion University to develop that curriculum. It will be shared in that they are providing professional development for staff once selected and throughout the programing that will be part of their continued research and work with us, but we will execute the curriculum, we will ensure that the staffing is done, that is our responsibility,” Branch said. “They’re not choosing the people to work for us, or work in this program, what they do have the autonomy to do is to select their staff who will be the liaison or the facilitator from the Old Dominion side to work with us.”

Gordon noted that additional details regarding transportation will be provided to the application.

“ … Part of our staff additions that we will look for as part of the application is to add more drivers just to potentially be able to handle this. That’s one of the staffing needs that we believe that we’re going to have to have depending on what happens down the road as we take a further look at the majority/minority program,” Gordon said. “So you’re correct, we don’t want to add an additional burden on to the transportation department, but we also want to make it clear to the Board and to the City that that’s part of the things we’ll have to work out in 2024-2025, but part of our application will be the additional drivers and transportation workers that will be necessary to make this program successful citywide.”

Editor’s note: Updated fourth and ninth passage at 4:50 p.m., Friday, Jan. 26 to reflect accuracy.