EDUCATION

In new STEM school, lessons for many ages under 1 roof, in 1 room

100 k-10 students at microschool will follow personalized plans.

By Marlon A. Walker marlon.walker@ajc.com

The 21st Century STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Academy is a modern take on the one-room schoolhouse.

Electronic circuits and textbooks on robot building are scattered on work tables just beyond the front door of the Decatur school. Beyond the STEM lab, 3-D printers are surrounded by cups, spheres and other trinkets already produced on them. In the corner, mats are laid out in a meditation room.

When it opens this fall, it will be the first school of its kind in Georgia, housing about 100 students from kindergarten through 10th grade within its 4,000 square-foot space. Some students already are taking advantage of the STEM curriculum that will be offered full-time in the fall, officials said, as part of their home-school curriculum or as an after-school activity.

“This is a test lab to make sure we get things straight,” attorney Glenn Delk said during a tour of the facility recently. “We’re focused on personalized learning ... because every child doesn’t start at the same place.”

Officials said 21C, as they call it, offers a personalized education experience that will allow every student to thrive through individualized learning with a research-based curriculum. Learning experiences will range from Mandarin language immersion to computer coding and robotics.

Delk and Gareth Genner, the former president of a k-12 college prep school, have been working several years to develop a “microschool” led by teachers and offering a STEM curriculum in a small setting where they feel students will better benefit.

“Our small classes and project-enhanced, mastery-based learning with one-to-one tutoring will ensure each child excels,” Genner said in a press release announcing several upcoming open house events. “Not every child learns at the same pace or in the same way, and this personalized STEM and liberal arts approach is what many parents are seeking for their children to prepare them for the future.”

Initial plans were to open the school for the 2016-2017 school year before construction delayed things, Delk said.

STEM, he said, is “the area of greatest need as well as the area of greatest demand.”

Pam Liu, a teacher hired for the school last year, said teachers will rotate around to different students offering one-on-one instruction in classes of between eight and 12 students. She sees the plan as more realistic for a teacher passionate about educating as class sizes continue to rise as the nation deals with a teacher shortage.

“I loved it, but it wore me out,” Liu said of often juggling three dozen students in traditional classrooms in Atlanta and Durham, N.C. “Having a class of 31 to 35 students and having to stay on this timeline ... with standardized testing at the end of the year. This is a teacher-led school. We will really get to know the students and... have a lot to say in how these students are going to be taught and the timeline they’re going to be on.”

Microschools have been developing for most of the past decade, with students from different grades engaged in the same classroom learning about the same subject but at their own pace and competency levels. Early schools popped up in Silicon Valley, New York City and Texas. Acton Academy, which began in 2009, has about two dozen campuses across the country, as well as in Guatamala, Honduras and Malaysia. According to its website, several others are expected to open soon.

Tuition for the micro-schools can run as much as $25,000. Delk said 21C’s tuition was purposely kept lower — at $8,400 per year — so as to not discourage anyone from attending.

Prospective parents and student have attended several open houses at the campus, at 1549 Clairmont Road, across from Emory University in Decatur. Delk said most have commented that the single-room learning tactic catches many off guard in the beginning, but many have requested additional information or plan to sign their children up. If things go well, plans already in the works for a second school will come to fruition.

“Knock on wood,” Delk said, “we’ll fill (the first school) up and have a waiting list.”

Additional open houses were scheduled for Feb. 17 and today. To submit an application, go to www.21stcenturystem.academy.