When the regular call to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipelines from America’s schools is regularly issued from Washington, the focus is often on better preparing STEM teachers to boost both academic performance and student interest.

At Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Academy, the academic performance is in place as a top-50 school in the state of Illinois, and as a science hub school, interest is buzzing.  The one missing piece is often the most overlooked:  how to ensure first generation college students primed for STEM success make it to the university classroom.

Von Steuben principal Laura LeMone, EdD Urban Education Leadership student, is pioneering a unique public-private partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Chicago-based Exelon Corporation to make higher education and career fields in STEM a reality for Von Steuben students.

Initially introduced by the Office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the partnership advances three tenets:  building interdisciplinary teams between math, science, technology and engineering teachers and professors; creating college exposure, access and credit courses at IIT; and laying a career pipeline for Von Steuben students to Exelon in the form of internships and job shadowing opportunities.

“It’s hard for students to get behind the idea of going into a career field like information technology when it doesn’t sound fun or interesting,” LeMone said. “When you put it into the context of problem solving or digital media, through the exposure at IIT and Exelon, those kinds of activities go a long way in exposing kids to the idea of pursuing a STEM career.”

With funding from Exelon, Von Steuben will hire a STEM coach to build interdisciplinary curriculum.  For example, LeMone highlights the natural connections between student data collection in physics and subsequent calculations that correspond to Algebra II studies.  LeMone aims to bring together department chairs in STEM fields from Von Steuben and IIT to create credit-earning course opportunities and to flesh out the details of exposing Von Steuben students to college life through campus visits and interacting with IIT students.  At a higher level, LeMone and academic leadership at IIT will define the long-term vision for the partnership.

From a leadership perspective, LeMone’s focus on building a collaborative environment based on transparency and intentionality paid off when the opportunity for the partnership arose.  She formed a small group of advisers comprised of teachers she thought would be interested in the proposal.  LeMone broadened her reach by rolling out the idea to department chairs, and as discussions gained steam with IIT, she invited teacher union delegates to attend meetings and offer their input.  Seeking community buy-in, LeMone introduced the idea to Von Steuben’s local school council parents.

“My work at UIC was really beneficial because when I had this opportunity, I had to be really careful and deliberate and thoughtful about how I was going to share this with my colleagues,” LeMone said. “I needed to show that this was not coming from the top down but really something we could build as a community.”

LeMone also sought to address issues of trust due to skepticism of private partnerships.  With debate over the expanding role of privately-sponsored charter schools in the city and growing dialogue over the role of private operators in schools, LeMone said she needed to demonstrate in concrete ways how the relationship with Exelon would yield dividends.

“Our teachers have great relationships with students but don’t always know how to get them into a career in technology or engineering in the same way an engineer from Exelon would be able to give them that advice or feedback,” LeMone said.  “Obviously, the dollars are always nice for a school if used correctly and intentionally, but the real benefit is experiential learning and relationship building with students.”