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District plans to expand prep program for more students and subjects - The Galveston County Daily News : Local News

November 27, 2014

District plans to expand prep program for more students and subjects

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Posted: Monday, December 2, 2013 12:30 am

GALVESTON — Starting next year, more students than ever will be able to participate in Ball High School’s specially designed programs focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

Thanks to a $4 million magnet grant from the Department of Education, the Galveston Independent School District plans to expand its STEM program to include up to 250 students. The school’s program, known as the Ball Preparatory Academy, now includes 145 students at each grade level.

What’s more, the STEM program will be divided into two separate tracks: one for traditional STEM courses and a separate track for students interested health sciences. Each of the tracks will be open to 125 students.

The district also plans to create two new magnet programs focused on business and media arts. Each of those programs will also accept up to 125 students per grade level.

Some funding will be used to support and expand magnet programs at Central Middle School and Scott Collegiate Academy.

District officials say that they intend to use the grant money to create and expand the programs in a way that will allow them to survive after the grant’s funding runs out. It’s possible the grant could be renewed for another $4 million annually for the next four school years.

That means, Superintendent Larry Nichols said, the district will invest heavily in technology and equipment for the school, and will attempt to avoid creating temporary grant-funded positions that could be jeopardized if and when the grant runs out.

“The magnet grant gave us a new oven to cook a bigger pie,” Nichols said while describing the program.

While the program expansion is being promoted as a benefit for the district, some parents and supporters of the STEM program are worried.

At a recent meeting of the district’s curriculum committee, a group of parents questioned whether expanding the program to include more students would lower academic standards.

Veronica Hugger, whose son Joseph is a sophomore in the Ball Prep program, said her family chose the STEM program partly because of the more advanced classes.

“I want him to be around people that want to learn and teachers that want to teach,” Hugger said. She added that her son intends to attend college, a goal she believed most of his fellow students shared. She and other parents also lauded Ball Prep’s small size, saying it facilitated better communication among teachers, students and parents.

“The program was initiated five years ago, and it’s been a very successful,” Hugger said. “The parents are very concerned. They want to see that what is working so well for the program is maintained.”

In response to parents’ concerns, officials agreed that the Ball Prep program was working well, which is why the district wanted to expand it to more students. Officials also said academic standards should remain high.

“The rigor that is part of the STEM program now, is still going to be there,” said district spokesman Johnston Farrow.

Nichols said he believed concern about the change stemmed from the small groups that make Ball Prep popular with parents.

Currently, Ball Prep students are chosen through a voluntary application process. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of slots available, the students are chosen through a random lottery. Nichols said believed it was unlikely that students who do not want to subject themselves to the higher standards of the academy program would do so because of the additional spots.

School officials have admitted that the changes to the program have not been widely advertised, and some of the district’s trustees apologized for the lack of communication.

When the school district applied for the grant, the state had not yet passed House Bill 5, a landmark education bill that changed graduation requirements for Texas students. District officials attempted to find out whether the new state requirements would affect the funding, but the day after the award was announced the federal government began its 16-day shutdown.

Officials plan to travel to Washington, D.C. in early December to hash out the final details, though Nichols said that he was confident that the state’s requirements can be folded into the proposed magnet program without seriously changing the district’s proposal.

Other details about the program, such as how course scheduling will work and how many teachers will be assigned to the program, will be determined after the district determines how many students will actually participate.

Applications for all of Galveston’s schools of choice will be sent out in January.

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com