KUNA — Two Columbia High School teachers and one Kuna mom have an idea they wish to see grow: a charter school in Kuna that focuses on STEM academics.

STEM is the buzzword around education lately, standing for science, technology, engineering and math.

Trina Neddo, Dan Neddo and Jazmine Martin are meeting with the Kuna school district superintendent Wendy Johnson on April 19 to discuss the future of the charter school in the district.

The group created a Facebook page and website at the beginning of the year. The group has named the school “Project Impact STEM Academy” according to its Facebook page. Over the past few months, the idea for a STEM charter school has gained traction among parents. Trina Neddo works with the Falcon Ridge Charter School STEM club, for which she helps create events and activities.

The group of three said they want to start a charter school in Kuna because they believe STEM education is where the future of public schools is headed, and because the Kuna school district student population is expected to grow over the next few years.

“The big thing is we need community support,” Martin said. “We felt the need for a STEM charter school, especially at the high school level. And with how Kuna is growing, it’s needed. We are in the baby stages because we need the community support.”

Dan Neddo and Martin both work for the Nampa school district as science teachers. Dan Neddo said the two didn’t consider opening the charter school in Nampa because there are already multiple charter school options within the Nampa district.

“Nampa has so many options for kids,” Dan Neddo said. “We love STEM because we are nerdy science people. But this is mostly about giving kids options.”

STEM IN THE KUNA SCHOOL DISTRICT

Almost 10 years ago, three Kuna school teachers created the STEM Academy in Kuna High School and Kuna Middle School: Angela Hemingway, who is now director of the Idaho STEM Action Network, alongside DaNel Hogan, who now works in Arizona, and Mike Wiedenfeld, the director of Career and Technical Education for the Kuna school district.

“The original design of the (STEM Academy) was a school within a school,” Wiedenfeld said. “Today, it has evolved and is a part of Kuna’s career pathway program.”

The Kuna STEM Academy, when it was still an individual program, started in seventh grade with physics classes and went all the way to 12th grade.

“We had groups of students,” Hemingway said. “In that cohort, they would take their STEM math, STEM science and then they would take their STEM English course. It was just a different way to create a community.”

Today, the Kuna school district has STEM clubs and classes, but the STEM Academy has disintegrated into different career-education programs.

Dan Neddo said he used to substitute teach for Hemingway when she was a teacher in Kuna High School and he was inspired by the past STEM program to create something new.

“They can choose to go to our charter school which is more science- and project-based,” Dan Neddo said.

The group said they are unsure whether the charter school would be built only for high school students or if it would be kindergarten through 12th grade.

HOW TO START A CHARTER

Dan Neddo, Trina Neddo and Martin have never started a charter school before, they said.

“I think Idaho is in support about this process,” Martin said. “It’s not a hard process, and I think it’s easy to find the steps to this process.”

But after this recent legislative session, the steps to begin a charter school are set to change in the next coming months.

Director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, Tamara Baysinger, said it’s an interesting time for charter schools.

“The actual petitioning process to start a charter school is in flux,” Baysinger said. “There has been a legal system for many years, but the law just changed. The new law will come into affect on July 1. So right now we are still under the old law but we are preparing to implement the new law.”

Charter schools are organized and managed as a 501-C3 nonprofit, Baysinger said, and a petitioning group needs to incorporate as a nonprofit first. Then the group needs to form a “founding board” which would become the future school’s governing board.

“Those individuals need to write the petition document itself,” Baysinger said. “That is a description of the school that they want to provide. This includes the educational program, their financial plan, the capacity of their board to actually, effectively operate a school. They are presenting a proposal to an authorizer.”

Trina Neddo said the founding board are close to finishing the petition and plane on sending the petition to the Idaho Department of Education on May 1.

Baysinger and Trina Neddo said it would take 30 to 60 days to go through the state department to check the petition to make sure it follows the state’s legal standards.

Once the state approves the petition it will appear on the Kuna school district’s docket, which will give the district 75 days to let the petitioners appear in front of the school board of trustees.

“We are thinking August we’ll see the school board,” Trina Neddo said.

Once the meeting with the school board is complete, and the trustees decide to authorize the petition or not, Trina Neddo said the petition will be taken to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission to be authorized.

“If we are approved by Jan. 1, 2018,” Trina Neddo said. “Then we can open in fall of 2018.”

WHAT THE SCHOOL DISTRICT THINKS

The charter school proposal meeting will be held by the petitioners and the school board of trustees on April 19.

Dan Neddo said Idaho families enjoy charter schools because it gives families choice about their children’s education.

“You have the freedom to do something different than what a district decides,” Martin said. “Education is a big, snarly slow beast. It changes slowly. So we are like ‘hey we can change faster in a charter school than in a big system.’”

Dan Neddo said charter schools are “educational laboratories” where things can change.

“The school we want to build is a lot like schools you see around the United States,” Martin said. “Their testing scores are coming in significantly higher.”

Wiedenfeld said the idea of a STEM-based charter school is interesting.

“I don’t know too much about what their parameters actually are,” Wiedenfeld said. “We’ve had some discussions in the district about some specialty schools and how those would lay out. With the new restructuring of the district, you’ll see some structures that may be put in place that could help with that. I’ve had previous conversations into turning a school into a STEM school.”

Wiedenfeld said he would be nervous if the proposed charter school would be honor class or higher, because STEM is broader than just the most complicated science classes.

“Welding, in my opinion, is a STEM strand,” Wiedenfeld said. “It’s not a traditionally a person who is the top five or 10 percent of their population that’s in a welding program. But the science behind welding is STEM. Healthcare is STEM, electronics is STEM. Most people think engineering and computer science.”

Wiedenfeld said he is interested in seeing how the petitioning group will frame their definition of “STEM” and if it matches the work Wiedenfeld has done within the Kuna school district’s secondary schools.

Kuna school district spokesman David Reinhart said the district is unsure whether the charter school, if petitioned, would be a part of the school district or a separate entity.

If the charter school is a part of the school district, it would be under the governance of the district’s board of trustees and would not take away funding from the district. A school outside of the district has the potential to take away funding because it could take away a number of students, affecting the Kuna school district’s attendance numbers.

Dan Neddo and Martin said as teachers they see how a charter school could benefit students who learn in non-traditional ways.

“It’s selfish but I want to design a school that I would have liked to have gone to,” Dan Neddo said.

“We originally were doing something that was integrated,” Martin said. “In school we have everything in little boxes but that’s not how the real world is.”

Trina Neddo, Dan Neddo and Martin said the school would be a project-based, non-traditional class style at the charter school.

Danielle Wiley is the reporter for the Kuna Melba News. Contact her at 922-3008 or email her at editor@kunamelba.com

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