Education is a major part of Vanderburgh County, which is home to 40 public schools in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (the third largest school district in Indiana) and 20 private schools. But Helfrich Park STEM Academy at 2603 W. Maryland St. still stands out from its many peers as one of only two accredited STEM middle schools in Southern Indiana, the other being Mount Vernon Middle School in Mount Vernon, Indiana.
Principal Shane Browder and his team of 39 teachers and administrative staff have transformed the school in its 13 years of accreditation to an education experience focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculums through real-world, experiential learning opportunities that are uncommon in public education for this age group.
Helfrich Park has implemented daily, hour-long courses for both science and math, as well as a fluctuating 12 to 15 extra curriculars with after-school buses provided by EVSC to make activities accessible for all students.
“We want to make sure there are no barriers and give kids opportunities to be involved,” says Browder. “Middle school is a hard time and being involved usually means, ‘Hey, you’re making friends, you feel more welcomed by them — you want to be there.’ (Parents) want (their) kids to want to come to school, enjoy it, and have fantastic teachers like we have to make all of that happen. And we’re fortunate here to have a lot of those.”
One such teacher who directly founded several of the academy’s most prominent programs is Megan Wright, who teaches sixth grade science. An Evansville native, Wright has been in her position at Helfrich for 13 years.
In 2015, Wright reached out to Berry Global and started a partnership that has continued for the past six years. Each year, the students start an entrepreneurial program with Junior Achievement as a warmup and then spend six months working on a real-world client project with Berry.
At the end, the class showcases their product in front of their parents, peers, community leaders, and Berry contacts. The project’s popularity led to a real-world STEM challenge for seventh graders with ProRehab in 2019.
“(Berry Global) said, ‘You have blown us out of the water,’ and it’s not me, it’s the kids,” says Wright. “It’s amazing what they can do when you give them the challenge and then the tools to help them succeed.”
In addition to the Berry partnership, Helfrich Park students take part in several other major curriculums and programs.
Run by technology teacher Ginny King, Project Lead the Way’s Gateway to Technology curriculum has been implemented at Helfrich since 2001. One of the first STEM programs at the academy, Project Lead the Way consists of a 40-minute class that takes children through the programming and construction of robots and related technology in partnership with local businesses and robotics programs, such as Anchor Industries and Ivy Tech Community College.
We the People is another yearlong curriculum in social studies for eighth graders (selected at the end of seventh grade) who compete for ranked titles through research, debates, and a final presentation. The University of Southern Indiana science lab is an initiative that annually welcomes every Helfrich student, one class at a time, to take part in a two-hour lab taught on campus by a USI professor.
Until 2008, when it achieved state STEM certification, the academy was called Helfrich Park Middle School. It serves children grades six through eight and currently has about 555 students enrolled.
A public school in the EVSC, Helfrich Park feeds mainly from Cynthia Heights and Tekoppel Elementary schools and, along with Perry Heights Middle School, sends its graduating students to Reitz High School.
“There is an option for kids to apply for an adjustment transfer and come to Helfrich Park just as there’s the option for kids to submit to any school in the EVSC,” Browder says. Originally from northeastern Alabama, Browder is in his third year at Helfrich Park. He was previously the principal at Plaza Park International Prep Academy for 10 years.
It isn’t all work and no play at Helfrich Park. For the past 35 years, the entire sixth grade has embarked on an annual camping trip to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. Before the trip, students are immersed in a fully integrated unit — studying animals from the region in English class and GPS systems and tracking in science class.
“Our staff here is family and we take care of each other and the kids,” says Wright. “The kids are always first. This is where kids and learning need to be.”
“I think it starts with a staff that cares about the kids more so than effort and time,” adds Browder. “That’s what opens the doors for kids to then be able to take advantages of communities, take those trips, do those fantastic things that make difficult middle school years positive years. And there’s where the real success of Helfrich is, is that core of teachers that is focused on what’s best for kids.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic halted the majority of Helfrich’s specialized programs, Wright and Browder hope to start reimplementing these educational opportunities.
Photos provided by Helfrich Park STEM Academy and taken pre-COVID-19.