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Liza Rickey, assistant principal at Sartori who previously led STEM-related curriculum for the nearby Issaquah School District. (GeekWire Photos / Taylor Soper)

RENTON, Wash. — Science, technology, engineering, and math have long been rooted in the DNA of this city, home to manufacturing and industrial giants such as Paccar and Boeing, which assembles each 737 aircraft here on the shores of Lake Washington. A budding healthcare scene has also emerged — Kaiser Permanente operates the longest automated laboratory line on the west coast at its 4-building campus in Renton.

But now the kids are getting in on the fun, too.

As part of our GeekWire on the Road project in Renton this week, we got a tour of Sartori Elementary, a brand new downtown school that opened last month. The focus is on teaching core tenets of science, technology, engineering, and math — also known as STEM — and exposing the 550 students to STEM-related fields that are suffering from a job skills gap.

“A STEM school has been my dream for a long time,” said Liza Rickey, assistant principal at Sartori who previously led STEM-related curriculum for the nearby Issaquah School District.

Sartori Elementary opened last month in downtown Renton, Wash.

Parents also share her enthusiasm for the school, which gained voter approval in 2016. Sartori is the first “magnet school” in the Renton School District, meaning that any student can attend, no matter their proximity. More than 1,500 families applied as part of a lottery process — students who live within walking distance in the North Renton Neighborhood were automatically accepted — and two-thirds were left on a waiting list.

“So many kids want to be a part of this school,” said Shelby Scovel, co-president of the Sartori Elementary PTA. “Parents want their kids to be as tech-savvy as early as possible. That’s where the future is.”

There is certainly demand from employers. Last year, there were 45,000 unfilled STEM jobs in Washington state as a result of the job skills gap, according to Washington STEM, while the growth in STEM jobs has outpaced non-STEM jobs by 3X over the last decade.

Sartori’s tagline — “STEM is a culture, not a curriculum” — is apparent throughout the 3-story school, which features three STEM labs and open workspaces that encourage team-based collaboration.

“It’s embedded in everything we do,” Rickey said of STEM. “We’re pulling the threads throughout our day and doing real world applications so that the kids see the connectedness.”

Sartori employs three coaches for science, math, and literacy — “teachers of teachers,” Rickey said — that help craft the curriculum. Carolyn Colley is the science coach and said the topic is often an afterthought at traditional elementary schools.

“All the teachers here have a commitment to STEM,” said Colley, who just invited a hydrogeologist that worked on the Sartori site to speak with students about the science underneath their building and why puddles form on the school’s field.

Computer science is a focus at Satori, which is already equipped with coding education tools such as 3D printers, Scratch coding cards, Spheros, and Micro:bits. Almost all students also get their own Chromebook laptops.

Rickey said her colleagues are strategic about teaching computer science and demonstrating its importance in today’s world.

“Computational thinking is critical as a life skill and it’s the basis for computer science,” she said. “There’s a lot of crossover.”

But Rickey added that “we’re not going to use technology for technology’s sake.” The conversation around how much technology and screen-time students should be exposed to at school has intensified nationally, especially with the digital divide debate.

“We’re very cognizant about technology as a tool and not a toy or something to check a box with,” she said. “It’s about improving the learning environment. If a hardback book is a better option for what your goal is, then you should be doing that.”

Sartori, also led by veteran educator and Principal Angela Sheffey-Bogan, is still very much in its formative stages and is running somewhat like a tech startup. Rickey said the school is embracing experimentation and passing those lessons to students.

“We have a culture where failure is just data collection and part of improving something,” she said. “Kids are picking up on that and we’re being intentional narrating that. When I change lunch four times in a week, I told them why. I’m putting them as part of the process.”

Sartori pays tribute to Renton’s deep history, with design nods to the coal mining and airline industry, as well as the Duwamish Tribe. In the library, ceiling fans mimic airline propellers attached to faux plane fuselage parts.

“Sartori Elementary is a beautiful, state-of-the art school that fits well in our plans for revitalizing the greater downtown community,” said Renton Mayor Denis Law. “It’s also a testament to the commitment Renton residents have always had in supporting the Renton School District, assuring that our kids have access to quality schools, staffed by talented teachers who are making a difference for their future.”

Joyce Walters, executive director of education nonprofit InvestED, which just relocated to Renton, said that Sartori “shows the changing dynamics in Renton.” Other local schools such as Renton Prep and Renton Technical College also focus on technology education.

“When I moved here over 20 years ago, nobody would have ever guessed they would put an elementary school in downtown,” she said. “But there are so many new families coming in and so many people interested in that quality of instruction for our kids. There’s a lot of excitement for that school.”

Sartori’s library pays homage to Renton’s airline industry, with propellers as ceiling fans attached to faux plane fuselage parts.

Students came to Sartori from 14 different elementary schools and 80 percent of teachers are from outside of Renton. Rickey said Sartori’s demographics reflect that of the Renton community.

“It’s super important that kids can see themselves reflected in our staff,” she said, adding that “the school is a source of pride for the community.”

However, Rickey said that the demographics of the STEM workforce do not reflect the demographics of her students. It’s crucial that they are exposed, especially at the elementary level before their identities are locked in, she said.

“Unless we’re actively working to solve that, we’re part of the problem,” Rickey said. “I don’t need all my students to go into STEM careers. But I need them to have the opportunity to say no.”

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