Jeff Kingsbury has boyhood memories of visiting a Fort Wayne elementary school that for decades served the neighborhoods around the General Electric campus south of downtown.
His mother taught at Hoagland School, and now – about four decades after its demolition – Kingsbury is part of the team redeveloping the former GE campus. He is happy plans include bringing Fort Wayne Community Schools students to a former office building known as Building 31.
“The idea we can bring a new school back to these urban neighborhoods, I think, is a powerful catalyst in how we revitalize these neighborhoods and greater Fort Wayne,” Kingsbury said last month, standing in what would become FWCS' STEAM school if the Electric Works project advances.
STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math.
RTM Ventures plans to transform the former GE site into a mixed-use development that includes residential, retail, office, education and entertainment tenants, with an emphasis on innovation.
City officials and RTM Ventures met Thursday, the financing deadline outlined in an economic development agreement. RTM representatives said they believe they have reasonably satisfied all requirements to begin the closing process. City officials had not announced a decision by Friday night.
If the Electric Works project becomes a no-go, it's possible FWCS could embed concepts of the STEAM school elsewhere, district leaders said.
FWCS has committed to the 26,000-square-foot, two-story building along Swinney Avenue for 10 years, agreeing in June to a base rent of $15 per square foot, a price that escalates by 2.25% per year. The district also will pay a tenant improvement budget estimated at $7.01 per square foot to ensure the 1940s-era office building is renovated to meet learning needs. These costs, plus other expenses including utilities, would total almost $866,000 in the first year and about $9.4 million over 10 years, district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
Cubicles, office walls, flooring and drop ceilings have been removed on both floors, creating a blank space for FWCS' vision.
When the 2022-23 academic year begins, the district expects up to 300 high school students will fill group-study spaces and high-tech lab studios nestled on a campus also occupied by universities and employers including Do it Best and Fort Wayne Metals.
Developers say the FWCS school will be one of only a few nationwide focused on the STEAM disciplines and established in an active mixed-use district, connecting students to career paths alongside entrepreneurs, innovators and mentors.
Water could be heard dripping in Building 31 as Kingsbury talked about its potential to become something special in Fort Wayne, perhaps even a nationwide model.
Kingsbury envisions mentors coming to the school and students walking across Dynamo Alley, the main thoroughfare connecting the Electric Works campus, to work with leading businesses.
“That's the future,” said Kingsbury, a partner in RTM Ventures.
A visit to Brooklyn STEAM Center showed FWCS officials the advantages of opening a school in the development RTM Ventures plans for Fort Wayne.
The New York City public high school is at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an industrial park with more than 450 businesses. The setting creates opportunities for students to learn from experts in the field, such as through internships.
“That's what we saw at the Navy Yard,” said D. Faye Williams-Robbins, chief of student, family and community engagement at FWCS. “It was very exciting.”
Opening the STEAM school will give FWCS students more opportunities, which has become even more important because of the state's graduation pathway requirements that begin with the class of 2023, Williams-Robbins said. Graduation pathways can be satisfied in multiple ways, including through dual-credit courses, internships and participation in a career program.
“We have to expand the pathways that we have because every kid now has to have (a pathway),” Williams-Robbins said. “As we think about that, we have to be more creative around what we're offering so wherever kids' interests lie, we have a place for them.”
Williams-Robbins expects the Electric Works setting also will nurture students' entrepreneurial spirit – an important asset as opening small businesses becomes more popular, she said.
School staffing decisions likely will be made during the first half of the 2021-22 academic year, Williams-Robbins said, noting many teachers are interested.
FWCS hasn't begun marketing the STEAM school to students, but the district doesn't expect it will struggle to enroll 150 students in each of the morning and afternoon sessions, Williams-Robbins said.
Like students in the FWCS Career Academy, students in the STEAM school will have a home high school – Northrop, North Side, Snider, South Side or Wayne – but it would be a mistake to assume STEAM students are training for a specific career path after graduation like Career Academy students typically do, Williams-Robbins said.
“We don't want to duplicate what we have,” she said.
Developing transferable skills will be more important at the STEAM school than job training, she said.
“We're providing more options for our kids and keeping up with what are the latest careers or set of skills kids need,” Williams-Robbins said, adding educators can't imagine the jobs that might exist when students enter the workforce.
Kingsbury foresees an even bigger impact of creating a school that can give all children – but particularly girls, minorities and those from low-income families – mentoring and immersive learning opportunities. It could dramatically increase the number of inventors, he said, citing a 2018 study titled “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation.”
The five authors, who represent entities including Harvard University and the London School of Economics, found exposure to innovation during childhood is a critical factor in determining who becomes an inventor.
“A lack of exposure to innovation can help explain why talented children in low-income families, minorities, and women are significantly less likely to become inventors,” the authors wrote. “Importantly, such lack of exposure may screen out not just marginal inventors but the 'Einsteins' who produce innovations that have the greatest impacts on society.”
FWCS is eager to make the STEAM school a reality, said Williams-Robbins, who has visited the site multiple times.
“We're facilitators of their vision,” Kingsbury said.