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The Waukesha school doing things differently and succeeding at it

Posted at 6:45 PM, Feb 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 19:48:45-05

WAUKESHA — Life at the Waukesha STEM Academy (Saratoga Campus) is a little different, but it's all working.

The school has eliminated a few things that you might not expect in a traditional school environment:

  • There are no bells: they play Bob Marley instead
  • Students don't have an assigned lunch period
  • Lots of alternative and flexible seating - like bean bags, swivel chairs, sitting on the floor
  • Half the classrooms don't have walls

As you might expect, students love this.

"You don’t feel that cramped in here. It's not sort of like a cage-like some people compare schools to prisons, and when you come to an open room school, it sort of feels more liberating," 8th grader Joshua Tovias said.

For seventh-grader Ariana Sciborski, she likes how flexible the lessons are. She said she is great at fractions, but decimals are a bit harder for her.

"You don’t have to do things you already know how to do. You can work ahead or if you need that extra help you can stay behind," she said.

It's common water cooler talk to hear sayings like, "We never learned how to do anything practical in school." Or, "They need to be more accommodating to students who work faster or slower than others," or even, "We need alternative teaching styles."

The Waukesha STEM Academy, a charter school part of the Waukesha School District, is putting all of that to practice.

"I just think that autonomy and life skills are catching on," Principal James Murray said. "Not to be a memorization of facts type person and not necessarily somebody who can just sit there and repeat and repeat and wash and rinse and repeat. Somebody who is going to problem-solve. Someone who is going to navigate things."

From the project-based lessons to hands-on woodshop-esque classes, students are getting an "alternative" education.

The popularity of STEM Academies is steadily increasing, according to Public School Review.

All the freedom students get gives them responsibility, time management, and social skills necessary for success in the post-school life.

The school days are loosely organized for a reason, but that doesn't mean students can slack off.

"We built a lot of frameworks behind the scenes," Principal Murray said.

But Ariana points towards a more practical reason as to why students can't get away with goofing off despite open classrooms and more freedom.

"There's also teachers, so kids know you have to be good because the teachers are there."

It's all paying off. The most recent Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction review gave the school a score of 84.1 out of 100. With that ranking, the school just makes the cut for designation as "significantly exceeding expectations."

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