Powerful Partnerships: Creating a Sustainable Model for Community and Business Engagement

In May of 2018, the Tennessee Department of Education, in conjunction with the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and the STEM Leadership Council, announced the first 15 Tennessee STEM Designated Schools. Over the next several months, TSIN will be highlighting each of these schools, the unique features that facilitate quality STEM teaching and learning, and advice from school leaders to adopt and replicate best practices. The deadline to submit the Interest Form and Self-Assessment for the 2018-2019 STEM Designation Cycle is September 28th.

STEM School Chattanooga’s Innovative Campus sits on the grounds of Chattanooga State University.

Tony Donen has received numerous accolades for the design of STEM School Chattanooga’s innovative campus and the unique teaching and learning methods embedded within the school’s culture. That said, when addressing the Innovative Leaders Institute kick-off last week, Principal Donen did not boast about his accomplishments, or the outcomes of his innovative model. Instead, he encouraged the Principals and Lead Teachers in the room to “Start with Why”, and consider the shared purpose for their school’s culture and habits. STEM School Chattanooga’s “Why” is best exemplified by their unique mission statement – To develop and share a new paradigm for world-class education using technology as a gateway to cultivate students’ inquisitive nature, exercise innovation, think critically, and collaborate to become leaders who are self-sufficient learners with the same passion as Chattanooga’s Renaissance. Shifting the traditional paradigm of education is a lofty goal, but one that unifies the STEM School staff, students, and the Chattanooga community around a common mission. Moreover, it has been an essential driver for the development of numerous purpose-driven partnerships that support the work of STEM School Chattanooga and create relevance for student learning.

We spoke with Principal Donen to learn how he intentionally curates partnerships and the many lessons he has learned along the way to promote long-term sustainability.

Community partners create relevance to the learning process for STEM School Chattanooga students.

STEM School Chattanooga has developed meaningful partnerships with a diverse group of business partners, non-profit organizations, and higher education institutions, all built around a common set of practices. “Successful partnerships are forged when the partner is involved in the planning stages and they have a vested interest in student learning outcomes,” Donen notes. This was particularly true for STEM School Chattanooga’s long-term partnership with Chattanooga State. Representatives from the University were involved in the founding of the STEM School and provided a home for the innovative high school on their University campus. What started as a partnership centered around real estate, however, has evolved into a full fledged co-curricular partnership, in which Chattanooga State employees serve on the curriculum committee at STEM School Chattanooga and the high school’s students have the opportunity to take dual enrollment courses at the University.

Donen recognizes that not all schools are within such proximity to a higher education institution. He encourages leaders of such schools to be open-minded and promote flexible scheduling or blended learning opportunities. “This partnership encouraged us to completely rethink what junior and senior year of high school can look like,” Donen said, noting the connection to their lofty mission statement. “In eleventh and twelfth grade, our students have an amorphous high school and college experience. They are encouraged to create their own schedules and pursue courses of interest, like in college, but they have the added support of our school community. When they go off on their own, they are much more prepared for the challenges of college or post-secondary opportunities.”

The Fab Lab at STEM School Chattanooga gives students the opportunity to build, test, and improve prototypes.

This level of intentionality permeates the numerous partnerships curated by Donen and his team. In the first year the school was opened, Donen noticed that although the Engineering Design Process was emphasized in classes, students were missing the opportunity to build, test, and improve a prototype that could solve a societal problem. “Students had great ideas, but it became readily apparent that we needed to create a space for students to actually create and test things,” he remembers. Donen sought to remedy this concern by reaching out to the Fab Foundation, a nonprofit founded by MIT scientists, focused on providing access to the tools, knowledge, and financial means to educate and invent using technology and digital fabrication. Connecting with the Fab Foundation resulted in the building of a Fab Lab in the school, as well as Donen’s selection to a leadership cohort to share best practices in digital fabrication. For school leaders interested in finding partnership opportunities for the building of physical spaces in a school or technology tools, Donen recommends returning to the “Why”. “Make sure you understand why your students specifically will benefit from those tools. Those conversations can facilitate a stronger integration plan with the partner and school staff to ensure the technology or lab space is effectively utilized.”

Engaging a community partner in the design of a PBL is a powerful way to promote long term sustainability.

Beyond physical spaces, Donen’s team has pushed the boundaries for the integration of business partners into the  school curriculum. STEM School Chattanooga’s vision to cultivate students’ inquisitive nature, think critically, and collaborate is best exemplified by the school’s unique curriculum, driven by project and problem based learning (PBL). Donen notes that community partners involvement in the PBL unit goes beyond sponsorship or judging final projects. Instead, partners collaborate with the STEM School educators to plan, execute, and even improve relevant curricular units. Many of the PBL units (which the school has made available to all) provide students the opportunity to grapple with real challenges identified by the business partner and develop comprehensive solutions to support the partners’ work. Donen recognizes the importance of these mutually beneficial partnerships, which “result in positive and purposeful dialogue to improve educational opportunities and break down the barrier between the schoolhouse and the world outside it.”

Since founding the school in 2012, Donen and his team have pushed the boundaries of STEM education and become a national model for partnership integration. He continually evaluates the needs of 21st century learners and takes courageous, innovative steps each year to create relevant learning opportunities. He encourages all school leaders to continually evaluate their school’s “Why” and be bold in trying new things in the interest of their students and the community. After all, if educators want to encourage leaders to ‘fail forward’, they must be willing to do the same.

STEM School Chattanooga was one of 15 schools to receive STEM Designation by the Tennessee Department of Education in 2018.


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