LA MARQUE — Students huddled in groups of two or three at tables littered with plastic building blocks, a programmable engine and a laptop.
They were building a robotic inchworm and, in the process, were taking different concepts from their science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and applying them in the classroom.
Those eighth graders are in the La Marque school district’s new Renaissance Academy, which is the school district’s new science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — program open to fifth to eight graders from across the county. The high school also has a STEM program called Cougar STEM Academy open to ninth graders, and the concept could soon spread to the elementary school level.
As Asiel Velasco worked with his partner on their project, he said the academy is different from anything he’s done before.
“It’s challenging in a good way,” Velasco said. “We are not just sitting around doing nothing.”
He said he is interested in journalism and science and that he might like to be a meteorologist. When he heard about the academy last year he decided to apply, Velasco said.
And Velasco is not the only one interested in what the academy has to offer.
There are 100 students in the program this year, and the number is expected to double next school year, said Denise Simmons the program’s project coordinator.
The academy is one of the district’s initiatives to bring more students to La Marque and to provide different options. In fact, this year 15 students enrolled from outside the La Marque school district, Simmons said.
There is no cost to be in the academy, but students must meet certain criteria to enroll.
Students must have passed all parts of the latest state assessment tests and have passing grades. The also must have no disciplinary problems.
The academy is a school within a school. It has it’s own wing in La Marque Middle School and a staff of five teachers. Along with an emphasis on math and science, students take classes one year ahead of their grade.
To help alleviate some of its funding problems, the district is looking to turn the academy into a charter school, Simmons said.
A charter would receive separate funding from the state and a separate accountability rating.
Simmons said early in the year there was some criticism that the academy was going to siphon off the top students. But, she said, the program really is open to any student that meets the minimum standards.
The academy has worked out ways to let the students participate in athletics, found grant funds for things like laptops in classrooms and is working on field trips where students can see what goes on behind the scenes at places like zoos and amusement parks.
“We are looking forward to growing the program,” Simmons said.
And while some parents are taking a “wait and see” approach before enrolling their students, Simmons said she and her staff are more than ready to demonstrate the academy’s worth.
“We are in a mode where we have to show and prove,” she said.
Fifth grader Deavian Thompson said she decided to join the program when she was told students had to have good conduct and good grades. On Thursday afternoon, she was with her classmates walking back from the library. She said she wasn’t sure yet if she would some day want to study science or engineering but she did like the academy.
“It’s not like any other elementary school,” Thompson said.