CINCINNATI – The idea to bring a charter high school specializing in science and math to Cincinnati State's main campus started off, in part, as a selfish one for President O'dell Owens.
"We needed to develop a pipeline for students who are prepared to come to Cincinnati State," he said.
But if he was acting in self-interest, it was enlightened self-interest, considering Cincinnati State STEM Academy's focus on drawing low-income students onto college tracks and into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The 150 students hail from struggling school districts like Mount Healthy and North College Hill as well as Cincinnati. Three in four students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, and most are African-Americans.
The school opened in 2012 as a center for credit-recovery students – those who had fallen behind with incomplete or failing grades at other schools. Many had a few courses left to graduate, and 76 received their diplomas last spring.
Now, the real work is beginning.
The emphasis shifted this school year to drawing freshmen who express a commitment to STEM disciplines and to sticking it out at the academy for the full four years.
Superintendent Stephanie Morton and Principal Yzvetta L. Macon want all the students to take advantage of dual enrollment, earning college credit through Cincinnati State while still in high school. And they want as many as possible to walk away with associate's degrees – tuition free – along with their high school diplomas.
"We want to be able to follow this ninth grade class and move them toward graduation," Macon said.
"Most importantly, we want the kids to be college ready, to be at a point where they won't need to go into remedial courses," Morton added.
Morton retired from Cincinnati Public Schools as principal of Western Hills University High School after 33 years in the CPS system. Like most educators, she views mobility – students hopping from one school to another, sometimes mid-year– as a major impediment to learning.
"You need a foundation," Morton said. "Consistency is really important. You just have to stay a little bit and let us help you."
With its STEM emphasis, the academy relies on laptops as part of the learning strategy, as well as projects that students collaborate on to complete. The school adopted Pearson's GradPoint digital learning program , which uses multimedia courses to teach and evaluate progress. "We like this curriculum because we're meeting the kids where they are," Macon said.
Owens, who serves as the academy's chairman of the board, said locating the school on Cincinnati State's campus in the city's Clifton neighborhood gives students a first-hand look at college, eliminating the mystery to first-generation college prospects.
"The thing that gets tested when you're going to college is self-esteem and confidence," he said.
Owens sees potential for the school to continue serving low-income and minority students while also drawing from a larger population of children who value the STEM curriculum that's offered.
"I'm hoping to develop a reputation because of the affiliation with Cincinnati State and its great two-year program that we'll get kids who want to get an associate's degree while they're in high school," he said.
For students and families interested in an economical path to a four-year college degree, it's hard to beat a tuition-free associate's degree earned in high school from Cincinnati State that is then transferrable to the University of Cincinnati through its pathways program and many other local schools as well.
A group of nine students who gathered for an impromptu interview in Macon's office appeared ready and eager to pursue their ambitions with the academy's help.
Lavaughn Spears, 16, of Downtown, is student council president. He comes from a long line of Cincinnati State graduates in his family. Spears likes the teachers and has an affinity for math.
A fast talker and thinker who makes confident eye contact, he dreams of designing weapons, pursuing astronomy, medicine, sports and mechanical engineering – with a plan to live a long life to get it all done.
Aimee David, 15, of North College Hill, wants to pursue biochemistry. She was drawn to the school in large part because of its affiliation with Cincinnati State.
"It's not everywhere you can go to pursue a college career while you're in high school," she said.
Jordan Covington, 17, of Springdale, who attends the academy with his twin brother, Jalen, left Princeton High School feeling unsafe.
"There was a fight in the cafeteria the first day," he said. On the day he talked about his new school, Covington was clearly felt at ease with his classmates, all of whom conspired to quickly finish off a large jar of Hershey Kisses Macon had offered.
At Cincinnati STEM, the worst fight Covington has witnessed was a food fight.
"It's pretty interesting to see a whole bunch of smiles and laughs," he said.
Vanessa Bolden, 16, of North College Hill, left Mount Healthy schools also feeling
"This year here, teachers really do care," she said.
She wants to become a music teacher and already participates in Cincinnati State's pep band.
The new school is still evolving. They plan to shift class hours to 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the fall from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to better accommodate students and their parents who drop them off on the way to work. Most take Metro buses.
STEM academy has eight teachers among 15 staff members.
The five-year plan laid out by the board calls for enrollment to max out at 230 students by adding 25 to 30 a year, Morton said.
Housing a high school amid community college students – many of whom are in their 30s, 40s and beyond – presents unusual challenges for administrators. They walk their students to the cafeteria and back and take other steps to ensure the adolescents are separated from college students except in academic settings.
Owens said the college has a long history of hosting high school students like the summer Black and Latino Achievers program .
The academy students are in uniform and easily identified for faculty and staff to keep an eye on among the adults in the few cases where they attend college classes.
He said the kids who made it to the STEM academy have already overcome temptations.
"These are the survivors who have already said 'no' to that life and 'yes' to a chance to get a better life by wanting to come," Owens said. "The high school kids come to me all the time and say they're appreciative that they're here."
Owens is confident the students will set a good example themselves.
"Back home on weekends, they'll be able to say no because they have something to say yes to here."