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Wauwatosa's WSTEM reaches full growth, but won't expand

Aug. 5, 2014

With the overwhelming growth of Wauwatosa's WSTEM school, it's hard to believe the public charter school, housed inside Wilson Elementary, once started in two classrooms with 40 kids.

That was seven years ago.

Now, WSTEM, which stands for Wauwatosa science, technology, engineering and math, has more than tripled in size and boasts a competitive lottery system for filling seats. This school year it will celebrate another milestone: operation at full capacity.

In the 2014-15 school year, WSTEM and Wilson will each enroll 130 students, according to Superintendent Phil Ertl, making the two schools equal in size and sharing an equal number of classrooms. Last year, Wilson enrolled 124 kids; WSTEM had 107.

The growth of WSTEM within Wilson is in step with a seven-year growth plan created by the district. The goal was for WSTEM to eventually occupy one half of Wilson.

"We were cautiously optimistic that it would happen. We laid it out year by year because we didn't want to do it too fast," said Ertl.

Space at Wilson

The district knew Wilson could sustain both programs and generate space for WSTEM because it has historically had low enrollment. In 2005, the school board even proposed closing Wilson Elementary due to its low numbers.

Wilson did not officially close because of the advocacy of a parent group and newly elected school board members, who saw the potential to open a co-facility model in the building.

At first, Wilson was proposed to be a magnet school, one that would attract a diverse student body from across the district. Then the district opted for a charter school within the facility, called the Tosa School of Health, Science and Technology (TSHST), which opened in 2007.

"We realized we were teaching more than health science," said Kristy Casey, school board member who served on the governance council for WSTEM for seven years.

With a little refining of the school's vision and mission, it reopened in 2010 as WSTEM.

"We set forth on really focusing on those strengths — science, technology, engineering and math," said Casey.

Meeting the demand

WSTEM's innovative curriculum has resonated with parents who seek alternative methods of instruction for their children. As a charter school, WSTEM's curriculum is autonomous of the district's. It encourages student inquiry, investigation and discovery. There is also emphasis on small group work and individualized parent-student instruction.

Student enrollment at WSTEM is based on a lottery system. For the 2014-15 school year, 159 applications were received for only 22 available seats, said Casey.

"The rest we had to turn away. We don't have the space now," she said.

Ertl said there is no intention for WSTEM to expand at this point.

"STEM is something that we want to make sure all students get, but at this point, there are no plans to expand. There's a lot of discussion about it. We don't have space in any of the other buildings. We don't have any other schools that could sustain it," said Ertl.

WSTEM programming is currently in its third year in both Longfellow and Whitman middle schools. There are roughly 80 students enrolled in each school's STEM program.

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