OAKBORO — When the Oakboro Choice STEM School opened in August, students, faculty, parents and the community welcomed the first school in Stanly County with a core mission of science, technology, engineering and math education.
While the STEM acronym places emphasis on science and math, the school is focused on helping students prepare for the real world through the style of teaching. Principal Kelly Dombrowski said students that do not thrive in science and math can still thrive at her school and benefit from its problem-based learning strategy.
Under this unique system, teachers present students with a result and students must figure out how to get to arrive there. In one math class, students were told to create a cupcake factory and had to figure out how to create a more efficient cupcake factory than the others in the class. Once students have researched the problem and come up with a solution, they present their findings and proposed solution. The project then goes to rest until students have learned more ideas that are applicable, then the project is brought back up to see if the students would do anything differently to make it better.
In a STEM classroom, memorization is eschewed in favor of solving problems through application and examples.
“Kids get a chance to ask what if I do this, or try it this way,” said Jennifer Snyder, who works with all of the school’s teachers as the STEM coach.
This taps into what Snyder and Dombrowski feel is the innate creativity these children have.
“It is liberating and fun to watch for me because all the constraints are falling away,” said Snyder.
The pressure of being right all the time is lessened as well, Dombrowski said.
“Students get to ask themselves, ‘Why was it wrong and when would the wrong answer be correct?” she said.
Students are also encouraged to be independent and learn how to perform research. Most teachers have an “ask three before you ask me” policy, which means ask three other people or sources before coming to the teacher. Policies like these force students to figure things out for themselves and prepares them for real world situations.
The community surrounding Oakboro Choice is embracing the school through donations and volunteering.
The school has a closet full of supplies that have been donated by community members. Resources donated are used by students for projects.
“I get calls all the time asking me if we can use certain items and I just tell them, ‘Yes, we can figure out a way,’” Snyder said. Donations are always welcome and appreciated, as long as they are clean, dry, and show no signs of personal identity.
Many businesses have donated including Michelin, Oakboro Tractor, Kimbrell’s of Albemarle and Oakboro Auto Group. The school also has partnerships with Wake Forest University, Pfeiffer University, UNC Charlotte and Stanly Community College.
Students also meet with locals who share information about their professions and daily work tasks.
“You never know what door these interactions might open for these kids, it could possibly spark interests for them to realize a future job for themselves,” said Dombrowski.
In the future, Oakboro Choice hopes to expand elective choices for upper-class students and offer a foreign language class.
“We have put the fun back in education,” said Dombrowski.
The students are also involved in what they want to see happen in the school. Dobrowski said “everything is up for grabs” when it comes to creating clubs and service projects.
“Giving back and looking ahead is what education should be,” she said. “We are all working for the same thing, the future, which are these kids.”
The 317 students that attend Oakboro Choice are called “STEM Scholars” and come from all over Stanly County, along with some students from Cabarrus who pay to come to Oakboro Choice. There are 25 teachers.
Oakboro Choice offers classes for kindergarten to eighth grade, and Dombrowski, who used to work in a high school in Stanly County, said she feels confident that the high schools in Stanly county will provide a great education to the students once they leave Oakboro Choice. She said that high schools in Stanly County are already STEM-oriented.
Next year the school plans to have an open application in February and use a lottery system to fill the open spots after it determines how many current students plan to return next year. The maximum capacity the school can currently accommodate without expansion is about 350 students.