Richfield school leaders may have mastered the science of recruiting new students.

After years of declining student numbers, officials are reporting a bump in enrollment this fall. They attribute the reversal to the district's new K-5 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school, which opens next month. The hands-on, interactive program was designed not just to integrate more science within the curriculum to boost test scores but also to keep more students in the district.

"Ultimately, we have to raise the achievement of all our students," Principal Joey Page said. "But you can't discount the other [goal]."

Officials of school districts across Minnesota are finding themselves in similar positions, making changes to keep up with their community's needs while eyeing enrollment numbers.

"It's a natural part of the change process for schools to find themselves in a position to re-market themselves," said state education Deputy Commissioner Karen Klinzing, adding that STEM programs are one of the popular ways for schools to show they're keeping up with technology.

"The old, one-room schoolhouse isn't going to cut it nowadays," Klinzing said.

In Richfield, the new STEM school is proving just that. More than 800 students have registered to attend it next month. That's 100 more students than officials expected, but still below the school's capacity of 1,100.

The popularity of the program appears to have helped halt a 10-year decline in students for the school district. Over the past 10 years, Richfield school enrollment has declined by 130 students. This year, though, registration is up from last year by 54 students -- a modest increase for the 4,000-student district.

"We hemorrhaged a lot of kids out of our district," Page said. "They're coming in so fast right now."

About 20 teachers skipped a portion of their summer break last week to begin receiving yearlong STEM training from St. Catherine University faculty at the STEM school, the former Richfield Intermediate School, which will be rechristened this fall with a name chosen by students, staff and parents.

As teachers explored using balloons, tinfoil and other objects to transmit light from one room to another, Page gave a tour of the school to a couple who live in the school district but have enrolled their children elsewhere in the past.

With Richfield reconfiguring its K-2 and 3-5 schools into traditional K-5 structures -- and introducing the STEM curriculum in one of them -- the couple decided to bring their kids back.

School leaders are hoping other families follow suit.

Beefing up science and math

STEM programs have sprouted at schools across the Twin Cities and the country in recent years because of increasing emphasis on science. In fact, there are 37 STEM schools or programs in Minnesota, according to the state Department of Education.

"Clearly, the way we've [taught science] in the past has been a mistake," said Kate Trewick, the Richfield School District's chief of staff. "It better not be a fad."

"We're giving the community what they want," said school district business manager Michael Schwartz. He said more choice in education, provided by programs such as STEM or dual language schools, will put enrollment on the rebound.

For teachers, though, the STEM school is more than a marketing peg for the district.

Engineering and the sciences are essential, they say, for exposing kids to subjects on which more careers are based.

"We have more opportunity for hands-on learning and just learning experiences that relate to the world," first-grade teacher Molly Ericson said.

By next year, about 50 teachers -- two-thirds of the Richfield district's elementary school teachers -- are expected to receive STEM certification. Officials said they're incorporating STEM curriculum in schools across the district by beefing up math and science.

But the STEM school will stand apart for a school-wide science emphasis embedded in its classes, three labs and special programs -- such as monitoring water quality at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield.

Even though the start of the school year is still two weeks away, school leaders are already calling the STEM program a success.

"We've stabilized [enrollment] and the trend appears to be growing," Schwartz said. "We've done a great deal of effort to reach out to the community."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141