What is the Ohio Alliance of Independent STEM Schools?

by Alyssa Cocchiola, associate editor

MAY 2022 — Throughout my educational journey at Bio-Med Science Academy, I never once heard the term “independent STEM school.” In fact, I had never even considered what type of school Bio-Med was or how it received funding — that is, until I found myself standing outside the Ohio Statehouse building on a cold March morning, preparing to present to members of the Ohio General Assembly about the importance of independent STEM schools — a topic I first heard of on the car ride there.

It was then that I learned Bio-Med was not the only school of its nature.

In total, there are seven independent STEM schools in Ohio, meaning that they are not affiliated with a public school district.

These seven schools are Bio-Med Science Academy STEM School, Dayton Regional STEM School, Global Impact STEM Academy, iSTEM Geauga Early College High School, Metro Early College High School, Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School, and Valley STEM+ MF2 Academy. 

Together, these schools make up the Ohio Alliance of Independent STEM Schools, otherwise known as OAISS (pronounced oh-AY-sis).

Pictured above is a map of what counties contain an independent STEM school in Ohio. (Northeast region) Bio-Med Science Academy is located in Portage County, iSTEM Geauga Early College High School is located in Lake County, (Central region) Metro Early College High School is located in Franklin county, (Southwest region) Dayton Regional STEM School is located in Montgomery County, Global Impact STEM Academy is located in Clark County, (Southeast region) and Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School is located in Lawrence County. Four out of the five regions in Ohio contain at least one independent STEM school, with the Northwest region containing none.

It is projected that in fall of 2022, Community STEAM Academy, an independent STEM school in Xenia, OH, will open its doors to sixth through 10th grade students. Xenia is located in Greene county, and is a part of the Southwest region of Ohio. It is unclear whether this school will become affiliated with OAISS upon opening. More information about the Community STEAM Academy can be found on its website. Photo by Alyssa Cocchiola.

The mission of OAISS is to approach learning in a way that meets the workforce demands of Ohio. To fulfill this mission, each school focuses on mastery learning, hands-on education, holding themselves to a “higher standard,” and having a non-selective admission process, according to the OAISS website.

Bio-Med Science Academy’s Chief Operating Officer, Mrs. Stephanie Lammlein, provided insight on this mission statement.

“The direction and pace our world of work is moving demands schools change to better prepare our learners for their adult journey.  One way to achieve this is through STEM. The work the independents are doing is helping to drive much needed change,” she said.

OAISS was initially formed just before the Coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. Though the group is relatively new, the school districts had been collaborating with one another long before the official formation of OAISS.

“As the Superintendent of Metro Early College STEM School, I felt it necessary to continue the advocacy of Ohio’s STEM schools,” Meka Pace, the president of OAISS and superintendent of Metro Early College STEM School, recalled. “We have great programs — each uniquely different by location — but our schools are truly preparing students for jobs of the future. OAISS has been a tool that the independent STEM schools have utilized to further amplify our voices and our programs.”

This amplification of voices is especially relevant to how OAISS schools receive funding.

Pictured above is the official logo for the Ohio Alliance of Independent STEM Schools which was initially formed in 2020.In 2007, the Ohio General Assembly authorized the creation of STEM schools through Ohio law 3326. This law allowed for a school to be defined as a STEM school if it met the outlined criteria, which only applied to public schools, charter schools, joint vocational schools, and community schools. Later that year, the 127th General Assembly allowed for the creation of public independent STEM schools with Ohio Revised Code 3326 and a provision of the biennium budget. Graphic provided by Meka Pace. 

“We are funded through a state formula that looks at many categories and arrives at a number for each school,” Pace explained. “On top of what the state gives you as a base cost, there are some federal dollars that each school receives to support students with special needs, or students whose families have a financial need.”

Despite the state formula, a major difference between independent schools and district-affiliated schools is that independent STEM schools are not able to levy funds from taxpayers. As a result, if a STEM school wishes to expand, renovate a school, or build a new building, funds must be acquired differently. Typically, these funds are acquired through donations or grants.

“Our funding stays relatively flat,” Pace admitted. “On average, a STEM school receives around $8,000 per pupil, while some districts may bring in $12,000 per pupil.”

Lammlein added to this, stating, “We are still unpacking the new school funding formula in Ohio and how it has changed our revenue. At this point, I can say [independent] STEM schools are the lowest funded ‘type of  school’ in Ohio.”

Since the schools are primarily funded through the state, representatives of OAISS will occasionally speak to members of the Ohio General Assembly to discuss the importance of STEM education and independent STEM schools.

OAISS members strive to coordinate these meetings around two to three times a year, according to Lammlein.

I was recently able to take part in how these schools received funding during the most recent trip to the Ohio Statehouse March 2.

Pictured above are the students from different independent STEM schools (including Bio-Med) who were invited to attend the meetings at the Statehouse. These students were either juniors or seniors enrolled in OAISS schools. In total, OAISS representatives met with 55 officers. Photo provided by Stephanie Lammlein.

“The purpose is to ensure that our representatives know of us and remember OAISS schools when they are creating new funding opportunities or legislation,” Pace elaborated. “Since we are few in number, it is sometimes easy to be forgotten or overlooked, so we strive to make sure that they are aware of the good work we are doing and the need to have equitable funding for our programs.”

Representing Bio-Med, alongside me, were Lammlein and seniors Kelsea Cooper and Daniel Zalamea.

Prior to this trip, the three of us were asked by Lammlein to attend several conferences and meet with other students from Bio-Med’s partner schools in Columbus. Upon receiving this invitation, I accepted and didn’t think much of what these meetings would actually entail. I figured this experience would be a general, nondescript meeting about Bio-Med and how the school operates differently.

It turned out that my assumption was far from the truth. After a two-hour car ride to Columbus, I found myself standing right inside of the Ohio Statehouse building.

I remember looking in awe at the building when Cooper turned to me and said, “Did you know this would be at the Statehouse?”

I said that I had no idea the meetings would take us there.

Shortly after this conversation, Cooper, Zalamea, and I were separated into different groups, accompanied by other administrators and students from other schools. Each group attended meetings with different members of The General Assembly, addressing how independent STEM schools prepared students for the workforce.

Popular topics addressed were internships, mastery learning, learning pathways, and exposure to different careers early on.

“At this point, I can say [independent] STEM schools are the lowest funded ‘type of  school’ in Ohio.”

Stephanie Lammlein, Chief Academic Officer at Bio-Med Science Academy

“I had an overall positive experience with the OAISS Columbus trip,” Zalamea said. “Not only was it interesting to meet students from across Ohio who have had similar experiences to the one I have had at Bio-Med, but the opportunity to talk to members of the General Assembly and help push for a better system of education was fulfilling. I hadn’t heard about OAISS until the trip, and I imagine that the vast majority of Bio-Med students don’t know about it.”

Cooper agreed with this, stating, “I’ve heard of OAISS in the past, but I honestly didn’t know what it was prior to our trip to Columbus. I remember other teachers talking about OAISS, like ‘Oh, we’ve got this OAISS training,’ but that’s it.”

In my collaboration with others, it was clear that being unaware of OAISS or independent STEM schools was not a Bio-Med-exclusive experience.

“When the superintendent asked me to [go to the Columbus trip], I had no idea there were other schools like us. At first, it was a little surprising, but then it felt good to know that other areas are getting this kind of opportunity,” Neha Pasupuleti, a junior at Dayton Regional STEM School, stated.

Pasupuleti, Lammlein, and I had attended around four meetings with state representatives during the first half of the day.

Pasupuleti added, “It was important that all of the people who are making laws about funding for education and things like that, that they know that we exist and all the programs that we offer, so that they can help us really strengthen the ones we have and also make sure that this type of STEM school model is available for everyone.”

After a lunch break, the groups were slightly altered to accommodate for schools that left early. Following this, I attended meetings with Lammlein and Haylee Acquah, junior at Global Impact STEM Academy (GISA).

“That day was very humbling and a blessing,” Acquah shared. “It definitely opened my eyes and reminded me how special and resourceful our school is and how much of an impact I and the school itself can make on others.”

One of the groups of OAISS students and administrators were able to speak to Lt. Governor Jon Husted, who posted the following on Twitter that same day: “Lt. Governor @JonHusted met with students and leaders from Ohio’s seven independent #STEM schools this morning to hear from them about how they are preparing for their future careers in the field.”

Both Cooper and Acquah were able to speak to the Governor.

“He did seem to care [about STEM,] and he was the person who is responsible for STEM schools getting funded, so I think it was cool to see us talk about ‘this is what we need,’” said Cooper. “STEM schools can’t levy taxes, so we’re relying solely on state funding. We have to do all of these grants, but the problem with grants is you can only spend them on very specific things. It was cool to see. I think he was pretty receptive to what we were saying.” Photo obtained from the Ohio Alliance of Independent STEM Schools Facebook page @OHIOAISS.

While talking with Pasupuleti and Acquah, I realized how unique the experiences our schools offered truly are.

Though I had understood the motive behind having workforce-preparing opportunities, being able to speak to other students with similar experiences allowed for me to see the bigger picture as to why these things were important.

“Oftentimes, I’m like, ‘This is a Bio-Med thing. No one else really understands other than Bio-Med people,’ but seniors at Dayton have internships,” said Cooper. “It’s just [90] hours across two years, whereas ours are 120, 240, or 360, so that was interesting to hear about their project-based learning and how each STEM school has its own specialty.”

For students at Dayton, internship opportunities are usually completed during a student’s junior year. Pasupuleti explained that at the end of the year, students are able to complete internships during “STEMmersion days.”

“We have this opportunity at our school where, for two weeks, we get to immerse ourselves in a topic we like to do and teachers will propose different projects we can do,” she said.

Pasupuleti stated that most juniors complete their internships during those two weeks and/or during “Plan E” days, which are days where students complete coursework digitally. These days operate similarly to Bio-Med’s “Digital Days.”

In talking to students from other schools, mastery learning was also brought up. Like the internships, I expected mastery learning to look similar between schools. To my surprise, not all OAISS schools used the same definition of mastery.

I was informed by Acquah that at GISA, a student must receive a 90 percent or higher to be considered mastered in a subject and able to pass a class. At first, I was rather startled, as Bio-Med’s grading system operates much differently.

Instead of a 90 percent being the equivalent of passing, Bio-Med’s version of mastery revolves around rethinking grades entirely with the use of standards-based grading. When the grades are converted into a traditional letter scale, a passing grade would transfer to a 70 percent.

Despite these differences, however, Acquah enjoys GISA’s grading system.

“The benefits that I have gained from this particular grading system is that it holds me accountable, showing me that 70 percent isn’t enough. It also in some way makes me believe that my teachers know I can do better,” Acquah shared.

Though each school varies in how they approach their goals, each school meets the OAISS mission of preparing students for the Ohio workforce.

Pictured above is Dayton Regional STEM School. When it comes to internship and career-focused opportunities, students attending Dayton are exposed to college and career exploration opportunities in sixth grade by participating in an annual College and Career Fair. When it comes to internships, students are also required to complete a 90-hour internship that is “customized to fit their interests, strengths, and goals,” according to the Dayton STEM School website. Photo obtained from the Dayton Regional STEM School Facebook page @daytonstemschool.

“I like [the differences] because we are all our own school…our independent STEM schools should be able to serve their students in the way they fit best,” Acquah said. “I don’t believe we should have similar curriculums because it gives students a choice if they want to attend an independent STEM school or not.”

Pasupuleti agreed with this, stating, “We’re all super different. It’s not like we have Dayton Regional STEM School and just make that exact same copy in Columbus, Cincinnati, and all these other places. Each school is designed to its community’s needs, and although we have similar principals with project-based learning and stuff like that, I had no idea that there were more schools like us.”

During a rather long two-hour car ride home from Columbus, I was able to truly reflect on how unique each OAISS school was.

Though I had never stepped foot inside any of the other independent STEM schools before, it was apparent that the schools of my newly-acquainted friends had prepared them to be successful individuals just from the way they were able to speak publicly and present themselves.

Despite being in a nerve-wracking situation where we presented to state representatives and governors without a script or prior practice, each person I met that day exhibited the soft skills necessary for any successful individual: resilience, flexibility, self-regulation, problem-solving, and stellar communication skills.

Those skills are ones that, from my experience, are less common in students who were not exposed to workforce-preparing opportunities.

“Being ready for the workforce after graduation is important because the fundamental skills we learn at independent STEM schools are habits that can’t be easily enforced in adults,” Zalamea stressed. “We as Bio-Med students are able to become responsible people with teamwork skills because it is enforced in us while we are young. If you tried to teach an older student the same values, they likely would not accept that they need to work harder.”

Reflecting on the OAISS mission, I thought to myself during that car ride, “How come I didn’t know about OAISS or independent STEM schools before today?”

It was so odd how something could be so familiar and yet so foreign to the entirety of Bio-Med’s community. After all, each student and teacher were teaching and learning in ways that actively fulfilled the OAISS mission, and yet, the bigger picture seemed to be hidden.

Attending school the next day, I realized the answer to this question.

I walked into class and everyone was looking down at their computer screens. Any conversations I overheard were about schoolwork: people complained about how much effort a project required, spoke about how excited they were for their final project to be presented, talked about how they were having a hard time finding a place to job shadow, shared answers on their math homework in preparation for tests, and exclusively spoke of and worked on whatever task was due next.

As Bio-Med students approach the end of the school year, it is easy to miss the big picture, and instead, focus solely on what task is next. However, that mentality loses sight of the reasoning behind why hands-on learning, workforce opportunities, and mastery learning were engraved in the school’s very being in the first place.

After all, every day, students at Bio-Med and the other six independent STEM schools are constantly being exposed to tools, experiences, and lessons that aim to prepare them for what’s next, and after a certain amount of time, it just becomes part of their daily routine — few rarely ever stop to ask why.

I certainly didn’t.  

Though it is entirely possible the mission of OAISS may never be brought to the attention of every student who attends an independent STEM school, its relevance and implementation will continue to leave an impact.

It has impacted the lives of myself, my peers, and newly acquainted friends from the other independent STEM schools, and it seems there is almost no way the impact OAISS schools have will stop there.

The Hive reached out to administrators from Global Impact STEM Academy, Dayton Regional STEM School, iSTEM Geauga Early College High School, Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School, and Valley STEM+ MF2 Academy for comment. These administrators did not answer The Hive’s query.

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