Residents of Bulloch County are well aware of the Statesboro STEAM Academy, even if they have no idea what actually goes on inside the building on Northside Drive across from University Tire.
If anything it’s hard to ignore the giant, blue fire breathing dragon above the sign that reads “Statesboro STEAM” in big, block text. For 15 years the sign read: “Charter Conservatory”, which doesn’t exactly attract the eyeballs of commuters coming down the road. But outside of the school’s unique appearance, there isn’t a whole lot that’s known about the “college, careers, arts and technologies academy” as it’s advertised on the aforementioned sign.
For starters, it’s a charter school. Charter schools are technically public schools in they receive state money but are different in they operate independently of the school district in which they reside. They make their own rules and follow their own curriculum so long as they meet the state mandated standards of education.
“Teachers have full autonomy here,” said Benji Smith, student services director at STEAM. “We say ‘These are your kids, your standards, now go teach.’ We practice individualized learning. The model is up to the teacher. We all have a goal, but we don’t make you get there a certain way.”
So aside from the giant dragon above an old Agri Supply building, STEAM operates like any other high school in the coastal plains. And like any other school in Bulloch County, STEAM strives to have a good athletic program to give kids an outlet for physical activity after school.
But considering the school is at capacity with 168 kids sixth through twelfth grade, numbers can be an issue to keeping any kind of a team afloat. STEAM tried middle school baseball six years ago, but it phased out when the middle school players got to high school and there was no longer a team to play on.
STEAM’s had similar issues with their middle school basketball team. The boys would play three years and get up to high school to see no more basketball. This saw kids leave the school so they could go on to Statesboro or Southeast Bulloch to continue playing, an issue that STEAM decided to solve last season.
“We lose kids at times because we don’t have a high school filter, that makes the middle school level so crucial,” Smith said. “The more kids we get here the better participation can be. Numbers are everything.”
Last season was the inaugural “varsity” basketball season for the STEAM Dragons, who actually played the JV teams of other schools in the area. But this year marks a big step for the school’s athletic program as they’ve been classified in GHSA’s region 3-1A, home to other local schools like Portal, Claxton, Metter and ECI.
As expected, it was a rough first year for the Dragons playing on the new scene. As Smith recalls from the game against Claxton where he said the score was “99-1”.
“We hit a free throw, that was it,” Smith said.
But at ground zero players aren’t discouraged about the lopsided losses and the Nike apparel private schools like Savannah Christian and Calvary Day can afford. Junior Dwight Frank knows what situation the school is in and keeps realistic expectations about what his team can accomplish. That way, the Dragons are still having fun and can gel as a team without dampening their spirits.
“When I’m sitting here and the other guys are dunking, I can’t be discouraged,” Frank said. “I have realistic expectations about where we are and I know these teams are better.”
Needless to say, things are growing quickly at STEAM. With the varsity boys basketball team in full swing, the girls middle school team entering their second season, co-ed middle school soccer coming back and now a cross country team coming this fall STEAM needed adequate leadership in its athletic department to oversee the next step of development.
A 26-year-old math teacher might not be the direction most schools went in this situation, but Smith and STEAM director Corliss T. Reese saw something special in Ronnesha Smith. The former Georgia Southern basketball letterman took the job at the beginning of 2017 after she was brought on to coach the middle school girls basketball team.
“We saw the passion and the experience, not to mention she was a highly athletic individual with great patience,” Benji Smith said. “That’s what it takes for someone in her position.”
Ronnesha Smith had always wanted to be an AD, although starting a program from scratch before she was 30 isn’ what she had in mind when she graduated college in 2013. But she was never going to turn the job down and has resources from her time coaching at SEB that can be of guidance in her new role.
“The two directors wanted to take charge with me so I accepted with grace, so I really appreciate this role and I’m excited,” Smith said. “I’m good friends with Jack Webb from my time at SEB and he’s a great guy to lean on for guidance and assistance.”
Smith does have a lot on her plate when it comes to her first full year in the role. She still has to name a varsity boys basketball coach, take charge of the cross country program, managing a shoestring budget and focus on keeping high interest in the middle school sports. Because without a strong feeder system, there’s no way the high school can sustain a solid athletic program.
“The middle school kids are crucial here,” Smith said. “If we can keep funneling them the retention will keep kids from transferring out.”
With that retention will come more sports. Smith said track, golf and baseball are all sports STEAM hope to have in the coming years. But for now, the Dragons are going to keep things small in their humble abode, but don’t be surprised if the Dragons start to spread their wings to bigger things in athletics in the next two years.