Six years ago, the school board in Stanly County voted to shutter Oakboro Elementary. Five years ago, it was reopened as a STEM magnet. And today, Oakboro STEM Choice School has been honored as a North Carolina STEM School of Distinction.

Oakboro serves 318 students K through 8 and provides not just exceptional STEM-specific courses, but a school-wide embrace of the STEM tools, technologies, and mindset that help kids succeed in every subject. As the school’s STEM Coach, Jennifer Crawford has seen the school blossom and, through what she describes as trial by fire, teachers were imbued with a “don’t be afraid to fail” attitude that definitely rubbed off on the kids.

“Students who didn’t think of themselves as science kids—who might have been seen as different at their old school—have the chance to lead here,” says Crawford. “They see their teachers try new things, explore new solutions, and they have adopted that spirit. When they go on to high school, they have a swagger like there’s no problem they can’t solve.”

Having started humbly with “literally, just toilet paper tubes,” says Crawford, energized teachers applied for grants and forged partnerships with the community and businesses that have seen the STEM program grow by leaps and bounds.

Students aren’t just learning science and engineering in their STEM classes. Third graders have access to augmented reality so they aren’t just reading about the human heart, they’re going inside it. Eighth graders aren’t simply writing reports about the Renaissance, they are using design technologies to reimagine their own town of Oakboro as a Renaissance village whose culture, art, and government they present to their younger classmates.

“This is what makes us special,” says Crawford. “A whole school collaboration. No idea is ever shut down and students are eager to share their questions and their solutions.”

When asked if she’d shared the news of this distinction with the school, she laughed and said this is a project the entire school and the extended community have been working toward for five years. When the school opened, the principal set a goal: “I want that banner.” Today, that banner hangs in the lobby of Oakboro and when asked what one thing made it happen, Crawford said simply, “We’re bringing the art of teaching back.”