U.S. education official visits Rathdrum STEM charter school

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LOREN BENOIT/Press James Blew, assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education, asks sixth-graders Shannon Gehr, right, and Chelsey Venning questions about their project during his tour of North Idaho STEM Charter Academy on Tuesday.

RATHDRUM — An assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education toured North Idaho STEM Charter Academy Tuesday as part of the department’s “Rethink School” back-to-school tour.

James Blew, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, met with STEM Charter Academy’s founders, administrators and teachers, and toured several classrooms, said a news release.

“We are looking at schools that are rethinking the fundamentals of our education system,” Blew said. “We need to do better. Schools like this are doing things differently and getting a much better result.”

In a roundtable discussion with the school’s administrators and founders, Blew asked about the history of the school, Idaho’s charter school application process and the school’s project-based curriculum.

Lorna Finman, a member of the school’s board of directors, said teachers at STEM were told from the beginning that they had permission to innovate. That, she said, has created a culture where teachers can be creative and inspire students to be innovative as well.

Blew’s afternoon visit to STEM coincided with Projects classes. While students take core academic classes in the morning, each afternoon is dedicated to hands-on projects emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math. Students shared plans and models of robots being designed for upcoming competitions and answered questions from the assistant secretary.

Scott Thomson, who founded the school with his wife, Colleen, said it was an honor that Blew made STEM Charter Academy a stop on the national tour.

“It’s a tribute to all of the hard work of the great team we have here at STEM,” said Thomson, who serves as STEM’s executive director. “It’s a tribute to parents, students and teachers all being on the same team going forward in one direction.”

Prior to visiting STEM Charter Academy, Blew attended a National Conference of State Legislators meeting in Coeur d’Alene to discuss federal education policy and the Every Student Succeeds Act. The charter academy was the only school Blew visited while in North Idaho.

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