Nikki Henson and Jean Watts

Nikki Henson (left) and Jenn Watts (right) are part of the newest class of education fellows at The Mind Trust, where they will spend the next two years putting together a K-8 all-girls school that focuses on STEM. (Photo provided)

During a short stint as director of policy for the Indiana Department of Education, Jenn Watts looked out across the state and saw an alarming gender gap in an area that many believe will drive the economic future. There weren’t enough women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The outlook was even worse when just looking at women of color.

Watts, who managed the department’s first STEM advisory council, had a thought.

“What if we started an all-girls STEM school?” she wondered.

Now the executive director of Every Girl Can STEM, Watts is on her way to doing that. In partnership with the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, a K-8 all-girls school that focuses on STEM will open in the fall of 2021. Watts, 36, believes introducing girls to STEM early as students can help solve that “huge gender gap.”

According to federal labor figures, women make up 47% of the country’s workforce, but they hold only about 25% of jobs in STEM. Along with the state education department’s STEM council, city officials and school districts have made commitments to exposing more girls to STEM.

“When it comes to the economic and business development of the state of Indiana, especially in Indianapolis, the tech and engineering sectors are mass critical to a lot of leaders in the state right now,” Watts said. “… We’re just at a moment in the history of our state where everyone’s coming together to solve this problem, and it’s just so cool to be at the center of it.”

The all-girls STEM school will be the first of its kind in Indianapolis. It doesn’t have a name or location yet, but there is a school leader. Nikki Henson, a former principal in Pike Township, said she’s taking a “leap of faith” in helping start a new school after almost 25 years in education.

Henson and Watts aren’t going at it alone, though. They’re both part of The Mind Trust’s Charter School Fellowship, where they’ll get resources and support to open the school. The Mind Trust announced its most recent class of fellows — which also includes those for Innovation Network Schools — on July 10.

“Just in our fourth day of the fellowship, we have learned so much,” Henson said in an interview July 11. “We’ve been introduced to so many people here in the city that will serve as a great resource for us as the blueprint is set on successful charter school operation.”

Watts said one step they still need to take before actually opening a school is a “neighborhood analysis” to figure out where this type of school is needed. As a charter, the school will also need a board of directors.

For now, Watts said she wants to “slow things down.” She said the school model has gotten a lot of interest from philanthropists and business leaders, which can add pressure to move too fast. Watts said she wants to focus on “protecting Nikki, making sure that we are getting this right in the beginning and allowing us to have that time to grow as a school” before they even think about scaling the model.

The goal is to eventually have 450-500 students in the school, but it won’t be at capacity immediately. Henson said the plan is to have just K-2 when it opens in 2021.

“I want families across Indianapolis to take a hard look at what we’re going to be offering in two years,” Watts said, “and hopefully they’ll come and check us out and see if it’s a good fit for their daughters.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


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