With a plan to have a 12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in its new STEM magnet school, the Stafford Municipal School District wants to create something never seen in Fort Bend County.
“We want to create a public school with a private-school ambiance,” said Marva Rasberry, the district’s chief operations innovation officer who is heading up the magnet team.
As the district builds its new $33 million middle school, which is expected to open in August 2020, plans are also underway to repurpose the old middle school to create Fort Bend’s first science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet school for grades 3-8. Eventually, the magnet school will be open to grades 3-12.
The magnet team – which also includes school board trustee Ashish Hamirani, middle school principal Ginny Gayle and marketing and curriculum leader LaKenya Perry-Allen – recently explained its vision that it plans to culminate with an innovative 2021 program. The district is still in the early stages of planning and hammering out all the details.
“Superintendent Robert Bostic felt this was a way to revolutionize opportunity for our students,” Rasberry said. “We want to expose our students to travel, domestic and international travel, exploring the global economy and looking at STEM from a different lens with team-building opportunities for students where they participate in grade-level camps and provide some cutting-edge rigorous programming.”
The magnet school is part of the $62 million bond voters approved in 2017. The bond also will cover the costs of building the city’s new middle school and creating an early childhood center serving 3-year-olds as well as a Stafford community center for all residents.
The bond is the largest approved in the city’s history. Authorities said they do not have breakout numbers on the total costs of the magnet school.
Before the bond was approved, the district said: $41.5 million would be used for construction projects of the new middle school building and administration building; $11.4 million would be used for renovation projects, which included the STEM magnet school, a community center and an early childhood center; and $9.1 million would be used for other projects including technology, security, transportations, land purchase, contingency, roof repair and landscaping.
Organizers recently unveiled their dream in a community meeting that attracted more than 200 parents who learned about plans for robotics, coding and biomedical opportunities. They plan another community meeting in September to ensure parental buy-in.
It’s yet another way, school leaders say, that the program is different.
“We’re also letting the community design the vision,” Gayle said. “I know my vision is to have bigger classrooms with labs and technology.”
Planning for challenges
The district plans to initially accept only 300 students who will go through an application process that includes testing and interviews with the students and parents. SMSD expects even more interest at the next September meeting, a specific date for which has not been determined.
Students accepted into the program will participate in what Rasberry called “annual capstone projects” that will provide the students the opportunity to develop leadership skills while enhancing their STEM knowledge.
“We don’t just want a program to get them college-ready, but we want them to be critical thinkers, productive citizens,” Perry-Allen said. “And the feedback I got from the parents is that they want to make sure it touches everything about the child. They want a program that has critical thinking but also helps with social skills, community services, teaching them to be team players in culturally diverse environments.”
The goal is to get back students living in Stafford that have gone to private schools, charters and other school districts. Rasberry said she did not know the exact number of students who have left Stafford. The district also wants to excite those students who have an interest in STEM, she said.
The program will be open to all of Fort Bend County. Hamirani, the district’s youngest trustee and a product of the magnet program at Hightower High School in Fort Bend ISD, said it helped shape him.
“This gives us an opportunity to really change the way people think about the Stafford community school district,” Hamirani said. “We want to ensure we are preparing our students for how jobs will look in the future. We want to make sure students are defining those jobs in 2030, and we want to equip them with the skills and knowledge that most students or people won’t have until they have higher education.”
Rasberry said she envisions attracting Stafford alumni now working in the STEM fields to return to volunteer or consult. The district already has certified robotics teachers and a strong relationship with Apple, Gayle said.
In addition to having capstone projects in which each student will be able to apply knowledge and create work portfolios, Rasberry said she and Bostic discussed even creating a “Shark Tank” type experience to accompany those capstone projects so students can present their ideas and designs to experts in the STEM fields.
“It’s just another something that will set us apart and above the norm,” Rasberry said.
The team has big dreams. It also talked about potential obstacles.
“Anytime you put your foot into something that has never been done before, you run into walls,” Gayle said. “Big is getting that community vision, having the staff qualified to teach this rigor, making sure we have capacity, and finding someone to teach coding. They’re currently coding for Apple or Microsoft, and we want to attract them here.”
Since there are only 300 seats available, the competition could be stiff.
“When launching a premier program, you have to make sure you have the stakeholders on board, you have the infrastructure, and everything is aligned with the goals, mission and vision,” Rasberry said. “Yes, there will be challenges. But anything that is grand, the work to get there is grand and will require a lot of diligence.”
Hamirani said they would talk with those who have mastery in computer science and medicine to be a part of the program as a volunteer or speaker.
“So parents can see this is what the outcome could look like, be it an engineer or doctor, how can I get my student to this end goal,” Hamirani said. “It’s fun and exciting and has a set of challenges.”
Over the next few months, Rasberry said the team will solidify the timeline that includes the details of the application process and the curriculum. They will have a STEM website and will create a STEM profile “showing what we are looking for in teachers, staff and students,” Rasberry said.
The competitive application process will be “a mix of a college admission and a highly prestigious private school with priority or weight given to Stafford students,” Hamirani said. “So I tell people, ‘If you don’t live here, start looking for your house now.’ ”