STEM charter school in Calgary approved to start this fall

Calgary is getting its first new charter school in more than a decade. 

The STEM Innovation Academy was announced Wednesday by former Calgary Board of Education trustee Lisa Davis and co-founder Sarah Bieber, who heads an education advocacy group, Kids Come First Alberta.

The Grade 7 to 12 charter school’s application was granted approval by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. 

“Like many people, we were sitting back after COVID-19 hit and it became very clear, very quickly, that the world had changed and changed permanently,” said Davis.

Davis said it was evident to them that technology innovation is going to be a big part of rebuilding Alberta’s economy.

“It was this summer, really, when we started talking about how do we create programming that really prepares our students for the opportunities for the future,” she said. 

Bieber, a former high-school teacher, said what will set Innovation Academy apart from other programs is a series of optional courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that aren’t available anywhere else.

She said the school will prepare students for the future.

“So areas like artificial intelligence nanotechnology, virtual reality, gaming development, medical technologies — things that they currently can’t learn a lot about in high school.”

The charter school will offer an online option for students throughout the province who would like to take an class in a STEM area of interest, said Bieber. 

She said Innovation Academy is working with leaders in STEM fields locally to build curriculum for these courses. 

In 2019, the United Conservative Party government lifted the 15-school cap on the number of charters allowed in the province. That limit had been in place since Ralph Klein’s government introduced charters in 1994.

A new Choice in Education Act took effect last September, which simplified the process for those applying to create a charter school.

This is the second new charter school to get approval from the education minister. 

In an emailed statement, Alberta Education said charter schools benefit Albertans by providing a greater range of choice in education for future generations.

“The STEM Innovation Academy will partner with international and Calgary post-secondary institutions to create locally developed courses for Grades 7 to 12, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said press secretary Justin Marshall.

“Preparing students with job-ready skills such as in the field of STEM is a central part of Alberta’s recovery plan, and we will continue to prepare students for success in their future careers.”

Innovation Academy has not secured a building yet but is slated to open in September 2021. Initially, it will be for students from Grades 7 to 10, but will expand over the next two years to include Grades 11 and 12. It will have room for up to 900 students.

Preregistration is available on the school’s website. 

“It’s on a first-come, first-served basis unless we exceed the capacity, and at that point we would go to a lottery system,” said Davis. 

There are 13 charters operating in Alberta with about 10,000 students — and thousands more on wait lists. There are seven charters in Calgary, four in the Edmonton area and one each in Medicine Hat and the Grande Prairie region.

Davis resigned from her CBE trustee position nearly a year ago, in January 2020. At the time, she alleged a secret motion passed at a late night board meeting days before was her final straw.

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