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Why KU’s Plan To Cut Its STEM Teaching Center Has Students And Alumni Upset

Chris Neal
For the Kansas News Service
UKanTeach, a program that's being eliminated at the University of Kansas, prepares math and science teachers for middle and high school instruction.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Faculty, students and alumni are pleading with the University of Kansas not to ax a teacher-training center slated to become the next victim of major budget cuts — or at least to extend its life a few more semesters.

KU announced earlier this month that the Center for STEM Learning will close in June. Students say they were blindsided, and that KU’s promise to create a more cost-effective path for math and science teachers doesn’t satisfy them.

“To us, this is telling the students that KU doesn’t appreciate STEM education,” said Hannah Bullington, a geology major and aspiring science teacher, “As a No. 1 research university, shouldn’t STEM be the forefront of our mission?”

For at least the past few years, Kansas middle and high schools have come up dozens of teachers short for math and science classrooms. KU has been among the state’s top schools to graduate new math and science teachers, but its numbers have slid.

KU numbers show the Center for STEM Learning churned out 17 new teachers in the 2017-2018 academic year and five in 2019. About a dozen are expected this year.

The center’s director, Steve Case, argues numbers were rebounding. But with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which hosts the center and its UKanTeach program, needing to plug a $2 million deficit, university officials said the center had to go.

The Center for STEM Learning says its budget is about $1 million.

KU announced last year that its various departments would need to make a combined $20 million in cuts. The Lawrence Journal-World quoted officials as saying the university had been running a deficit in part of its budget and risked burning through vital reserves.

Interim College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean John Colombo said KU’s commitment to training top-notch math and science teachers won’t waver.

“The training of STEM teachers is not being eliminated or curtailed,” he wrote in an email to the Kansas News Service. “It is simply being moved back to our nationally ranked School of Education.”

The School of Education handles other teacher programs, but Colombo’s college began training teachers in math and science in 2007. It has since graduated 233 UKanTeach students, and the Center for STEM Learning says 80 percent went on to teach middle and high school math or science.

With the task now squarely back in the School of Education’s court, its dean said the school will move quickly.

'It's really an expensive program'

“I was kind of shocked,” by the decision to cut UKanTeach, Dean Rick Ginsberg said. “It’s a good program. I’ve always been in support of it. But it’s really an expensive program.”

The School of Education can’t simply take over operating UKanTeach, he said, but it can build a replacement with many of the same strengths. That may entail creating joint majors between the school and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. UKanTeach already involved some coursework overlap between the two.

“I have every confidence in my people that we’ll be able to figure this out,” Ginsberg said.

And he has assured school superintendents that the School of Education hopes to work out a plan by December for a new pathway.

To UKanTeach students who fear that restructuring will cost them the courses they need to graduate on schedule and fulfill state rules, Ginsberg said: “Every student that is in that program … will be eligible for licensure. Nobody is not going to be able to get licensed.”

Credit Chris Neal / For the Kansas News Service
For the Kansas News Service
Some urban and rural schools across the state struggle to find math and science teachers for classes like chemistry.

Similar assurances went out by email to the more than 100 current students with UKanTeach classes under their belts, but it failed to allay some people’s anxieties.

“I’m just completely devastated,” said Lauren Klein, a sophomore physics major aiming to teach high school. “What will I do if I can’t teach? I just don’t see myself going to work in a lab somewhere. Teaching has been my goal since Day 1.”

Students also described feeling like the School of Education plans to build a plane while flying it.

“I don’t understand how they can make the switch from our program to theirs flawlessly,” math major Jordan Shaner said. “They want to do it by the end of this year, which is still crazy, because that can’t happen.”

The sophomore has already reached out to Kansas State University, worried he could have to leave KU or risk not graduating within four years.  

“If the UKanTeach program doesn’t get extended, then I’ll end up going to K-State,” he said. “I have to either transfer or lose a lot of money.”

Case also questioned KU’s certainty that students will be fine. He wants KU to keep the center open for three more semesters ⁠— meaning a full year beyond the slated June closure.

UKanTeach is a state-approved teacher preparation program, he argues, and points to Kansas State Department of Education guidelines that say when a college drops a teacher prep program, “candidates in the program are allowed three full, consecutive, regular semesters following the notification date to complete the approved educator preparation program.”

Case said closing his center and defunding UKanTeach constitutes ending KU’s state-approved program for training math and science teachers.

KU officials countered that the rules allow for tweaking portions of a program without seeking state approval for a new program. In a follow-up email to UKanTeach students on Sept. 24, the College of Liberal Arts And Sciences said their program will be “modified” but will continue to meet state regulations.

The email asked students to let the college know by Oct. 8 whether they want to complete their teacher preparation.

“Advisors will work with you to complete a comprehensive degree plan,” the email said.

UKanTeach alumni have written to interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Carl Lejuez, begging him to save their program.

In interviews with the Kansas News Service, several said UKanTeach coaxed them down a career path they hadn’t considered.

Lawrence science teacher Sara Abeita signed up as a biology major to buff up her resume with communication skills that might impress medical schools. Then UKanTeach sent her to teach sixth-graders how to extract DNA from strawberries with soap, salt and isopropyl alcohol.

“I just fell in love,” she said, “with being in the classroom with the students.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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