Last fall, Northside Elementary reopened with a new name–Ann Arbor STEAM @ Northside–a new principal, almost all new teachers, and an enrollment of 407 students–more than double last year’s 185.
The new Northside’s focus on science and technology, and its problem-solving learning style, generated so much buzz that the school soon had to schedule weekly tours for curious visitors. A January tour included an Oakland University education school prof, teachers and parents from Farmington, and Ann Arbor parents whose kids attend other schools but were considering making Northside their “school of choice.”
The change included a physical renovation, inside and out. “The building is so bright and cheerful!” says Ann Arbor Education Association president Linda Carter, who once taught music there. “Where I taught, where the main office is now, it was always dark and gloomy.”
It’s a dramatic change for a school long regarded as the problem child of the AAPS’s twenty-one elementary schools. Before the overhaul, 38 percent of Northside’s students qualified for free lunches. Despite being eligible for federal Title I aid targeted at boosting achievement for its low-income students, its test scores were among the lowest in the district.
Northside’s enrollment had steadily dropped over the past half-dozen years, exacerbated by tensions between many parents and former principal Monica Harrold. At one point, says a board member, the district considered closing the school.
Instead, after months of planning, Northside reopened in September, a different creature. In revamping Northside, superintendent Jeanice Swift and the school board joined President Obama’s push to increase the number of young people training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). But Ann Arbor, like an increasing number of schools nationwide, decided to throw in an “A”–for art.
Swift says that when she discussed the possibility of a STEM school with parents district, they “made it clear they wanted art” in the package. STEAM’s art teacher, Rachael Van Dyke, explains that she uses art to encourage “critical thinking.” For example, as part of a project to build a new playground, Van Dyke had her students make “playscapes” depicting a playground they imagined. The children even met with the landscapers and architects doing the work.
The school’s new mantra is “project-based learning.” Essentially, this means the kids learn important concepts through hands-on activities. In one project, first-graders made plastic cup telephones to learn how sound travels and performed light investigations with flashlights and mirrors. Fourth-grader Nina Klein, ten, talks excitedly about how her class studied potential and kinetic energy by building model cars with eggs as “passengers.” “We would test them–run them down the ramp,” she says. If the car stayed upright and didn’t crash, the egg–and the “passenger”– would survive. Many projects are done in the “STEAM Lab,” run by popular technology and engineering teacher Bill Van Loo.
All the STEAM kids were issued iPads, something his two daughters found “exciting,” says STEAM dad Don Adams. Six months in, says Adams, his girls have “nothing but rave reviews so far.”
While Adams’ daughters had attended the former Northside, about 50 percent of the expanded student body transferred from other Ann Arbor schools or from outside the district, according to AAPS spokeswoman Liz Margolis. (Northside also grew by adding a sixth grade; those students will move on to seventh grade this fall, and next year Northside will become a full K-8 school.) Margolis says the buzz around the school has put a squeeze on nearby real estate. “After we announced the STEAM school, it was almost impossible to find rentals or houses to buy.”
The physical and educational changes, and the parade of visitors, enhance the excitement for STEAM kids and parents. “My daughter hates snow days,” says Nina’s dad, Fred Klein (himself a teacher at Dicken, and the vice president of the teachers union). But the differences between STEAM and other district schools may be overhyped. Except for the projects, Klein says, “I wouldn’t say it’s dramatically different” from Nina’s previous school, Wines. “She does everyday math and she does reading.” Superintendent Swift notes that STEAM concepts have been introduced to other schools–and that new technology is being “infused” throughout the district.
Cynthia Bostwick’s son was one of the students who made the transition from the old Northside to the new STEAM. Adopted, he’s African American, and Bostwick had apprehensions about what would happen as the new students made Northside “much more white and upper-middle class.” Because only 22 percent of the expanded student body is now eligible for free lunches, the school no longer qualifies for Title I services, like extra help for reading. But, Bostwick says, “some of our fears have not been realized,” noting that the superintendent has lived up to her promise to find a way to continue help for children who had been receiving it.
Bostwick’s son doesn’t care about that; he’s focused on a project to build a full-size trebuchet–a medieval weapon of war. Bostwick says he loved helping to figure out how far the device could chuck a pumpkin.
This article has been edited since it was published in the March 2015 Ann Arbor Observer. Nina Klein’s description of an energy experiment has been clarified and expanded, and the description of plans to introduce new technology at other schools has been corrected.