Charter School NUAMES Focuses On Math and Science, The "Brain" Of Utah's Education Breakfast Club
January 12, 2009
With a unique student body that seems to be re-defining high school stereotypes, NUAMES is carving out a unique and positive niche in the charter high school landscape.
by Rebecca Edwards
Charter School NUAMES Focuses On Math and Science, The "Brain" Of Utah's Education Breakfast Club
Anyone who has ever related to the John Hughes high school classic, The Breakfast Club, might be surprised to visit the Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science (NUAMES). In the classrooms of this charter high school in Davis County, one would be hard-pressed to identify the "Criminal," "Princess," "Basket Case," or "Athlete." However, there would be "Brains" in abundance. This high school, which primarily focuses on math and sciences and offers students the chance to earn their Associate's Degree along with their high school diploma, is home to high school students who prefer engineering classes to drill team and foam sword-fighting to playing football.
Parents and students seem to have chosen NUAMES for the same reasons: the focus on math and science, and the chance to earn college credits on scholarship. "My primary motivation to attend NUAMES was that I wanted to be a physicist," Michael Weight, high school junior, said. "I thought that this school would have more classes specialized in math and science. Now the early college program is more appealing because, in my opinion, the high school coursework at NUAMES is lacking."
Amanda Moss, another student who has attended NUAMES since her freshman year said she chose the school because she could take college classes on scholarship. Many students and parents agree that the early college program makes NUAMES stand out.
"NUAMES is the best deal in town," Heather Hill, engineering teacher, said. "The students get four years of science and math. In addition, they are required to take two years of engineering courses (which is an application of that science and math). That is more than other high schools in the state require. As long as they meet Weber State University's entrance requirements and maintain a "B" average, they get their Weber State tuition paid. About a quarter of the graduating class graduates with their associate degree at very little cost to the parents. The students then are eligible for the 75% paid Utah scholarship at any public university in Utah if they graduate with an associate degree."
According to Deborah Hefner, Director of Business Operations at NUAMES, the early college program saved parents over $160,000 in tuition during Fall Term 2008. "We had 97 students participating, taking nearly 1,000 college credits," Hefner said. "I tell students that this is the best part-time job they can have. In our last graduating class, 24% of the students finished high school with their Associate's Degree."
The strong focus on academics and emphasis on college attendance seems to attract a specific type of student. Of the students interviewed, many have career goals like Robotics Engineer, Astrophysics and Computer Science. Since NUAMES does not have its own athletics or music departments, students who were involved in those activities before coming to NUAMES either choose to give them up or arrange their schedules so they can still participate in those programs at their home high schools.
For most NUAMES students, the school is a perfect fit that they just wouldn't have found at a traditional public high school. Kelly Schuldberg, one student's parent, said, "I didn't even know NUAMES existed until they came to the Jr. High to do a presentation. I was really excited because my son is kind of a 'computer nerd' and I knew he would fit in well here. The fact that the school is smaller makes a big difference. I feel like he may have been lost in a big school like Davis." (Find the current NUAMES open house schedule here: http://www.nuames.org/)
Teachers agree that the small student body (320) creates a close-knit community with a lot of peer support. Hill says, "The advantages for students at NUAMES are due to the close relationships. They know most all of the other students and at the same time, they know their teachers. They are more empowered to pursue their own interests. They are unique and they treat other students in that same context. A student that might not fit into a traditional school can shine at NUAMES if they so choose."
Hefner adds, "Our kids are amazing. Sometimes the most popular students are the star athlete or the cheerleader, and sometimes really good students don't get their just due."
However, as Hefner points out, there is a flip side to the more intimate community. "As one student said to me the other day, 'the good thing about NUAMES is that everyone knows who you are and the bad thing about NUAMES is that everyone knows who you are.' They can't hide," she laughed.
While the majority of students attending NUAMES are interested in math or science- related careers, there are some who are interested in pursuing fields like the law or journalism. Since NUAMES curriculum is focused on the sciences, there can be concern that students miss out on other activities or experiences that are part of a more traditional high school environment.
"I don't feel like I've missed out on anything worth worrying about," Moss shared. "It is what you make it. So take advantage of the opportunities you have and make the most of it."
NUAMES doesn't have a school newspaper, drama department, or football team. Students can still participate in those activities at their home high school, but for many that is a challenge. One English teacher, D'Arcy Benincosa, is committed to broadening the opportunities available at NUAMES. She recently directed a production of Much Ado About Nothing that allowed students the chance to experience being part of a theater production.
"It's hard to get kids signed up for drama because they tend not to be wired for it," Benincosa said. "This is why I have felt that it was important, with my very first drama class, to do a production and show the kids what there is to gain from it. This worked wonders. So many more kids are realizing it is ok to like Math AND Drama. With English, I have a lot of kids who have brains wired differently from mine. I'm very much into language and metaphors and feelings and wondering. But the kids really like analytical thinking and they love asking "why". I try to bring it back to that. I also ALWAYS connect the literature to life lessons and modern events so the kids see the value of the themes being taught to them."
Benincosa also offers French lessons after school, helps students participate in the statewide English Quest competition (where NUAMES won in several categories last year), and has planned an educational trip to Europe for students next summer. All the teachers at NUAMES seem to be similarly passionate about the school and the students.
"I believe that nearly all our teaching staff cares deeply about the students and their subject material," Allan Baggaley, Spanish teacher, said. "I am confident that students who put forth effort are being well-educated here. I also believe that the early college opportunity is excellent for the head-start that students can get on their higher education and the money that it will save parents. Smaller classes mean that students get more personal attention and fewer distractions help them stay more focused on academics. Finally, I think that students generally treat each other better at our school. I'm not saying that we are free of teasing and fighting, but we have VERY few fights and kids that might be picked on in other schools are accepted here by most."
NUAMES is one of 68 charter schools currently operating in the state of Utah, offering educational alternatives for grades K-12. There are 10 more charter schools slated to open in 2009 and 2010. The charter school movement seems to be taking hold and making a big impact on public education. Opportunities for specialized education, smaller class sizes, and early college coursework are no longer the domain of those who can afford private school.
"As with all entities, competition when done in a constructive manner, builds all sides up. I think that traditional public education has adapted to better meet the needs of their students since the rise of the charter school movement," Baggaley said. "As the traditional schools move in a better direction, charter schools will have to continue to be innovative and offer new products, as it were, in order to continue recruiting new students. It really is a win-win situation. Having choice in education is not just for the rich anymore."
Hefner summed up the impact that charter schools seem to be having like this, "Good is the enemy of great. If it's 'good enough' it's never going to be great. Some public schools are looking at charter schools and thinking how can we be more attractive to parents and students?"
Laura van Bree
Four years at NUAMES has really been a good experience for me. I gives me the chance to go above and beyond the normal curriculum. Compared to what my friends at other schools are learning, I seem to be getting the higher education. Aside from the friends that I grew up with, and would have been in the same territory as me, I now know a ton of people from all over Davis, Weber, and Morgan County. I love NUAMES, and I would stay here longer if I were not graduating this year.
NUAMES really is a great school for gifted minded individuals. But, you wouldn't have to look TO hard to find your rebels, princesses, athletes, and so forth. Being a self proclaimed veteran of the school, this being my 4th year here. I've met some great people be they students or faculty. Our teachers are great and have a love of teaching. And most of the students love to learn.
I came here for the Engineering and College aspects. Despite the fact that my true academic passions are English, History and Theatre related. I wanted to leave for the extra year of math and science. But I stayed for the environment.
I participate in other high school activities with friends from Layton, Davis, Northridge and Clearfield. So don't be put out by the lack of extra curricular that we have here.
It is a great time in history when our students are getting what they go to school for ...an education. I am so thankful for teachers who obviously enjoy teaching and care for their students enough to prepare them to think on their feet in spite of flack they may receive. It is so good to see real opportunities given for everyone that is wants to pursue them, and for those who don't, still walk away with something that is worth their time. Some teachers like this can be found at NUAMES.
I was very excited to see this article highlight such a valuable and often overlooked educational setting. I am a teacher at a similar program in the Portland Oregon metro area and have heard similar responses from my students. I found that the student voice in this article provided a powerful insight into charter schools and early college model. After all it is all about the studentís education.
Being a 3 year NUAMES student I would have to agree. This school is one of the best out there for those who are smarter than the average bear but also love to have fun. The foam sword fighting group is an outstanding way to get your excercise and meet students from both NUAMES and other local highschool such as Layton and Davis High.
It sounds like charter schools are an extra choice in public education. I wish there were charter schools when my kids were young, maybe it would have helped them better to have been in a smaller learning environment.