SPS magnet program leaves Discovery Center after eight years

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” released by Superintendent Grenita Lathan in December.

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Ben Hackenwerth

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.

The Discovery Center of Springfield offered free childcare and expanded educational programming at the height of the pandemic.

“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.

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