In a first for the Richfield Public Schools, a new science-centric magnet school will open this fall.

The program will serve students in grades K-5 and will focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction.

District leaders are adding the STEM magnet program to their menu of school choices in an effort to keep more students in the district and to prepare them for science and engineering careers.

A new national emphasis on promoting education in the STEM fields has motivated many school districts such as Richfield to create new programs that focus on the hard sciences.

The decision to create a STEM magnet school was made in January by the Richfield school board, acting on a recommendation from the superintendent, Robert Slotterback.

"We're trying to bring kids back into the public school system," said Michael Schwartz, business manager for Richfield Public Schools. The theory is that if the district "gave the community options that they would come back to the school district."

About 700 students have signed up for the new STEM school, but the building can accommodate at least 1,200.

Next Tuesday, the district will host an open house at the school site and is inviting the public to come learn more about the STEM program.

The school will be housed at Richfield Intermediate School, which currently is a neighborhood school with grades 3-5.

"Up to this point, when we've talked about STEM, it's been a power-point or a brochure," said Joey Page, principal of Richfield Intermediate School. "This will be the first time for us to get in front of students who are enrolled and introduce ourselves."

He said the event also will include exhibits on engineering put together by The Works, an Edina science museum and partner of the school district.

"Because engineering is very new to Minnesota standards, families and students and some teachers don't know a lot about it," Page said. "We're using this event to introduce people to engineering."

This summer, construction will begin at Richfield Intermediate School to add a science lab and an engineering lab. The school also will have an "exploratory room," designed to create engineering challenges for students to explore.

Richfield is also investing in training district teachers for the science and engineering instruction.

"One of the key points that is going to set us apart is the staff development of the teachers," Page said. "The teacher is the most important person here."

The district has formed a partnership with St. Catherine University and over the next two years, up to 40 teachers will receive their STEM teaching certificate, Page said.

All classroom teachers must have their certificate in STEM by the fall of 2012 in order to work at the school.

The idea for a new magnet school emerged from discussions between Richfield's superintendent and a parents' group, district officials said. Among the options considered were an International Baccalaureate program, a fine arts focus or a STEM program.

District leaders chose the STEM model after surveying parts of the community to find out what would be most attractive to students and parents, Schwartz said.

Right now the new magnet school has no name, but Page says that will change. "We haven't named it officially yet because we'd like to get our families and our students in first and spend that time building that community," he said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488