The middle school years can be volatile for students, and in St. Paul, they can be hard on superintendents, too.

Joe Gothard, now beginning his third year as leader of the state's second-largest district, is aiming to succeed where a predecessor stumbled — and he is pinning his hopes partly on a new middle school not far from the city's East Side.

E-STEM, as it currently is known, opens in September in the former Crosswinds Arts and Science school building in Woodbury. It will begin with sixth-graders only, giving Principal Jocelyn Sims a dream opportunity to build a new program from the ground up.

Stakes are high. Gothard is making a middle school turnaround a priority in a new strategic plan, SPPS Achieves, to be launched this fall. The district has been losing too many students at that age, officials say, and needs a jolt.

"This is the kind of energy and excitement that all families and students need to have," the superintendent said this spring when Sims reported on her teacher and staff hires, and on efforts to recruit students at East Side elementary schools.

Her pitch?

"You get to be pioneers of a brand-new middle school," Sims recalled this week. One, she added, that is "in the heart of a nature haven." There is a bald eagles' nest near the road that winds its way to the school's entrance. Plenty of deer in the area, too.

"You have to drive real slow around here," Sims said.

Last year, St. Paul Public Schools bought the Crosswinds building for $15.3 million and hit fairly quickly upon the idea of focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) through environmental education.

The district says the purchase saved it from having to build a new East Side middle school for about $70 million. But it also means the district must now bus students from two East Side zones at a cost of about $350,000 in 2019-20.

That would be nearly 180 East Siders out of a student population that now sits at 187 students — or 13 short of its projected 200 sixth-graders.

Sims still expects to hit that target.

Too much at once

For students, middle school can be an emotional, challenging time. Former Superintendent Valeria Silva added to the anxiety by moving to put more special-education and English language learners in general-ed classrooms in 2013-14. Behavioral issues ensued; suspensions soared.

Families began to make it a practice to pull children from the district between fifth and sixth grades — and the bleeding has continued. St. Paul had 2,479 sixth-graders in October 2018, about 400 students fewer than had been in fifth grade the previous year, according to district data.

But some schools have capacity issues. Hazel Reinhardt, a former state demographer, said that the East Side is expected to trail only the northwest part of the city in anticipated growth of middle school students in the 2024-25 school year.

Gothard and school board members have responded not only by opening the E-STEM school but also by investing in the middle schools in other ways. His strategic plan calls for an additional period to be added to the school day beginning this fall — a move that is expected to cost about $1.8 million.

That would give students access to more electives, as well as an advisory class that helps ease the transition from elementary to middle school. Teachers also can use the extra period to examine how they are teaching and how students are learning — a practice now in place at Washington Technology Magnet School.

Middle school has a stigma, Gothard said, and not just in St. Paul. Providing kids with support, and working to help figure out what they're good at and passionate about, can help them "create an identity for the future," he said, and, yes, hopefully boost enrollment.

"I think we have a market share we can capture in our middle schools," he said.

Student-centered

At E-STEM, Sims is eager to begin working with her teachers, all but one of whom has six or more years of experience, she said. The application process included writing an essay on developing a positive school culture.

"Most importantly, the theme that came out was that students are at the center of everything," Sims said.

With the exception of three years in Arizona, Sims spent all of her years as a principal on the East Side. She now lives on the city's West Side, but says of the old neighborhood: "I feel like I grew up on the East Side."

Much of E-STEM's interior is a work in progress. There will be a teacher collaboration space. Gender-inclusive bathrooms. Also, a fitness center for students and staff members, made possible by a $100,000 competitive grant announced by Gov. Tim Walz and the National Foundation for Governors' Fitness Councils.

Once school starts, students will be asked to come up with ideas of problems to solve. Social-justice issues could come to the fore, Sims said.

But among the kids' first big projects will be to help come up with a permanent school name and mascot. Those were topics they'd ask Sims about themselves — back when she was a principal on the recruiting trail and had a new school to fill.