The middle school—100 percent are students of color, 70 percent are from households that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 66 percent of students enter the school performing below grade level—has already boasted incredible results, with more than 90 percent of its students going to college in a city with the lowest graduation rate in the nation.

Yohance Maqubela, executive director of the middle school, credits the success of the school to a mix of qualified teachers, early intervention, a belief in every student’s ability, and a focus on STEM subjects.

Yohance Maqubela. Credit: Hector Telford.

Yohance Maqubela. Credit: Hector Telford.

“STEM is the international language of the future,” said Maqubela. “In poor communities of color, 80 percent of students are taught by teachers who are either not credentialed in the progression, or do not have a background in the subject area that they are teaching…since the STEM subject areas are both cumulative and content-rich, early deficiencies in these disciplines are the most difficult to make up. Thus, it is vital for us to have a STEM focus in preparing our students for outstanding life outcomes.”

In the middle school, students study a range of STEM subjects, but Maqubela says the key is to make the connection between what is taught in-class to what students love, like video games and social networking.

For example, along with core classes, as well as a focus on arts, humanities, and physical education, students can choose a class or activity that interests them during an extra period of school, where they can work on practical applications of the STEM disciplines, such as solar cars, robotics, and video gaming.

Students can also study:

  • Green building techniques in architecture
  • Video game design
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Digital media
  • The mathematics of finance
  • Careers in medicine
  • Computer science
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Forensic science
  • Microsoft Office certification

Maqubela notes that finance has become a hot subject among students recently, thanks to not only the economic crisis and the awareness that it’s important to be independent and financially stable later in life, but also because of the examples of young Silicon Valley moguls.

“With the continued growth of the various ‘dot.com’ and young IT billionaires, students see these people living a dream existence at such a young age, and they want the same things for themselves,” he said.

(Next page: STEM mixed with business savvy)