Lakeville elementary students will get a new kind of weekly class that combines the hard sciences with the arts next year, thanks to five teachers hired with part of $5.6 million in annual funding voters approved last fall.

The teachers, called STEAM specialists, will teach science, technology, engineering, art and math. STEAM is a twist on STEM, adding art into the mix. The five new hires will be divided among eight elementary buildings, providing new 50-minute programming periods once a week for every class.

“When you’re looking at … 21st-century skills, many of the jobs that are out there require kids to create,” said Barbara Knudsen, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

And in surveys conducted before the levy, parents overwhelmingly wanted STEM programming at all grade levels, said school board member Jim Skelly.

When the specialists visit classrooms each week, they will work on creative, lab-style projects that combine all the areas together, including art and design, a natural extension of the other disciplines, Knudsen said.

“The people we are looking to hire are people who are really conscious of the fact that we really do need to integrate it so it’s relevant to our students,” Knudsen said.

The decision to bring on the specialists was made swiftly and approved at a special school board meeting in early May. “This information came up quickly and many were surprised at how fast this went,” Skelly said.

Gimme an ‘A’

The idea to add art to the STEM focus came a STEM task force and was supported by Superintendent Lisa Snyder, who was eager to find ways to bring art back to elementary schools and saw STEAM as a way to do that, Knudsen said.

Other districts locally and nationwide have also implemented the STEAM concept. In the Mounds View district, Edgewood Middle School started a STEAM magnet program in the fall of 2012. The School of Engineering and Arts at Olson Elementary in the Robbinsdale district also has a STEAM focus.

While Lakeville elementary schools still have music, media and physical education specialists, art teachers were eliminated several years ago, part of $30 million worth of cuts over the past decade. Art is now taught by classroom teachers, with PTO-funded artists-in-residence also supplementing lessons at the elementary level.

Parent Jackie Craig, who has two kids in Lakeville schools, said the district is “on the right track” with the STEM focus, but notes that the “A” in STEAM is defined differently by various groups. Ideally, she would like to see a broader liberal arts or humanities focus to programming, rather than simply emphasizing design, she said.

Making sure kids have exposure to art is important to Lakeville parents, and not having art specialists “is still an issue for many people,” she said.

Skelly agreed. “Frankly, there’s an expectation and an interest in having more art at the elementary level,” he said. Most board members want to bring art teachers back but don’t believe the district has the funds to do it, he added.

Other specialists retained

Specialists provide classroom teachers with preparation time they need to plan each day. This year, a guaranteed 50-minute daily prep period was written into elementary teachers’ contracts, so schools must find ways to cover that time, Skelly said.

An earlier plan had suggested cutting learning specialists and would have resulted in students having less time in music class, Skelly said.

The proposal that passed managed to keep the learning specialists, add one music position to be divided among elementary schools and hire the STEAM specialists. The plan cuts elementary music instruction from 60 to 50 minutes a week. But the additional full-time music teacher will be able to spend extra time with classes as needed, Knudsen said.

The arrangement will be financed through levy dollars, with additional funds coming from money saved due to teacher retirements. The district will also cover costs using the extra $28 per pupil provided by the Legislature two weeks ago, Skelly said.

The board doesn’t yet have specific plans for implementing STEM at the middle and high schools, but that will also begin in 2014-15, Skelly said.

With decisions made quickly and late in the year, parents attending the May 2 meeting were both excited and concerned about what the proposals meant for their students. “Their comments were, ‘You’ve got some work to do to make sure people understand what’s happening here,’ ” Skelly said.