A magnet program that Springfield Public Schools started and has long operated within the Discovery Center of Springfield is moving.
The Academy of Exploration, a program for 40 fifth-graders, was opened in mid-2014 at the interactive, hands-on science center in downtown Springfield. It has been located in that center for eight years.
"It was our intent and expectation that they would be here this fall," said Rob Blevins, the executive director of the Discovery Center.
Rather than sign a multi-year lease, the district decided to move the academy out of the center but keep it downtown. It will spend one year inside the Geek Foundation, 433 W. Walnut St., next door to the Springfield Brewing Company.
Ben Hackenwerth, chief strategy and innovation officer, said the move was motivated by the goal of doubling the size of the program — as early as next fall — and emphasizing computer science and coding.
The program already focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
"For some time, we've had the desire to expand our footprint with AOE," he said, adding it is one of the "most popular" magnet programs in the district.
Hackenwerth said demand for the academy, and other magnet or "choice" programs has long exceeded available space.
Expanding access to choice programs was a priority in the "entry plan" Superintendent Grenita Lathan released in December.
Hackenwerth said in the spring the Geek Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides free technology training, approached the district about housing a computer science magnet program in its new facility.
"We weren't prepared at the time to open a new program. We didn't have the time to do the curriculum," he said. "But (the district) was interested in how we might be able to use that space for programming like that down the road."
At the same time, the district was in contract talks with the Discovery Center.
Hackenwerth said rather than sign a multi-year contract, the district opted to move AOE to the Geek Foundation for one year to develop programming.
"As far as staying there another year, that would require us engaging in a new contract with the Discovery Center," he said. "We didn't really want to do that if we weren't going to be there long-term."
He said the goal is to move AOE to a district-owned facility the following year. The exact location has not been announced.
The annual lease for the Discovery Center was $33,428. The district will pay $24,000 to lease space this year at the Geek Foundation.
Hackenwerth said the foundation is working with AOE teachers to integrate experiences with computer science and programming into the curriculum this year.
The district made clear Wednesday that the center worked to keep AOE in its original location, even offering a one-year lease. But the district opted to move the program as part of its overarching goal for expansion.
In mid-March, parents of the current AOE students — and those accepted for the 2022-23 year — were notified by email of the location change.
"Our new AOE classrooms at the Geek Foundation will provide additional space for student use," wrote Kelsey Brabo, director of SPS choice programs. "This new partnership enables AOE to maintain a close proximity to educational partners located downtown, while also offering exciting potential for further expansion of SPS Choice programs in the future."
In the email, Brabo praised the district's long relationship with the Discovery Center and said it will continue despite the move.
"We thank its board of directors for supporting the Academy of Exploration from the very beginning," she wrote. "While AOE will no longer be housed at this location after this school year, we look forward to continuing to partner with the Discovery Center to offer a variety of learning experiences for students."
In a Monday interview, Brabo acknowledged there were challenges to the new location, a storefront with primarily on-street parking and no designated greenspace.
Brabo said for recess the students at AOE will walk three blocks to use the playground at Campbell Early Childhood Center, located at 506 S. Grant Ave.
"It's very comparable to what we had over at the Discovery Center. We would have a little bit of a walk to get to that space to have recess," she said.
Transportation, especially pickup and drop-off, is more complicated.
Parents with children in three magnet programs, including AOE, were recently notified that the district will not provide busing for the first weeks of the fall semester, due to an ongoing shortage of bus drivers.
The district will use the shuttle system, which it has long used for the Health Sciences Academy at Mercy Springfield, where parents drop off their children at a single location and they are shuttled to the program.
For AOE, the shuttle will be located at Parkview High School.
"We are in collaboration with Parkview to have arrival and dismissal happen from there. We will be using SPS transportation to shuttle the kids to the Geek Foundation," Brabo said. "That will allow us to have a really safe and secure spot ... and its more centrally located."
AOE has received satellite meal service from Central High School and that will continue. Students order lunch choices, which include a hot option, and they are delivered.
The News-Leader asked Blevins how the two classrooms set aside for AOE will be used in the future.
The center opened its doors wider during the pandemic to provide childcare and open a STEM school of its own.
"We will use them to expand our Discovery School program and are working on funding to even open a preschool classroom," he said.
Blevins noted the center serves 30 counties in southwest Missouri and students from a four-state region for field trips. The center offers in-person and virtual learning options.
"The important thing is finding those intersections where we can continue to help propel our kids forward," he said.
Blevins said students who attended AOE often developed a love of science, technology, engineering and math and that was inspiring.
"What we see is that this is an inspiring place," he said. "We're going to keep doing our mission and we're going to keep inspiring kids to have lifelong learning for STEM."
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: SPS magnet program leaves Discovery Center after eight years