Challenger Learning Center at Shawnee H.S. placed 'on hold' by J - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Challenger Learning Center at Shawnee H.S. placed 'on hold' by JCPS

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A $1.2 million non-profit learning center created to teach students about the challenges of space exploration has been put "on hold" by Jefferson County Public Schools, the center's acting director said.

The Challenger Learning Center contains elaborate mockups that simulate a space laboratory and mission control, and middle- and high-school students who visit take part in simulated "space missions" that stress math and science principles.

The center at Shawnee High School is part of a network of non-profit centers created after the 1986 Challenger disaster to teach such concepts to students.

But now the center's future is uncertain.

William Vandermeer, the acting director of the Challenger Learning Center, told WDRB that he and the center's additional two staff members were called to a May 8 meeting with Dr. Houston Barber, the principal of Shawnee High School.

"We were told that the district had made a decision to go another direction with Challenger," Vandermeer said, by phone.

He says the three of them were told that the school district had decided to relinquish control of the center's operations, in order to "get JCPS out from under the financial burden of Challenger." Instead, Vandermeer said, the district would be issuing a request for proposal to seek out an outside third party to take over the operations of the center.

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Vandermeer says he is to be reassigned to another role at Shawnee, while the center's two additional employees were deemed to be "overstaffed" and their positions eliminated, but they would have the option to seek other employment within the district. Vandermeer said one of them has already found another teaching position.

Amy Dennes, assistant superintendent with JCPS, says it was a decision the district had to make.

"The district knows we have this valuable field trip destination," Dennes said. "It's an exciting thing for kids, but we've worried for the past couple of years about the business model we had because it was costing us a lot of money."

According to Cordelia Hardin, the Chief Financial Officer for JCPS, the facility had an initial cost of $1.2 million to set up, and incurred subsequent annual operating costs of $250,000. In turn, the center brought in between $50,000 and $55,000 per year.

"It's had a loss basically of $200,000 a year, on average," she said.

It may come down to numbers, but Vandermeer said the decision came as a shock to him.

"It was a surprise," he said. "We were coming off our most successful year ever, both financially," and in terms of the number of students who come through the doors.

"We're in our fourth year," he added. "We'd be celebrating our fifth year anniversary next January."

Vandermeer says it's his role to maintain the operations of the center for the next few months.

"We were asked to fulfill our obligations through the summer," he said. "We've got a number of missions and camps scheduled."

"We feel comfortable that we can commit through June, but we'll have to see what happens with July."

He said the district is expected to issue the RFP this summer. For his part, he says he hopes whoever takes over the day-to-day operations of the center will stay committed to the principles it was founded on.

RELATED: Former backup teacher-in-space Barbara Morgan visits Louisville for international Challenger Center conference.

"I'm hoping that Challenger does go forward in whatever manner and is treated as a STEM resource and not as…a vehicle to make money for the district," he said, adding that, "Challenger centers were not designed to make money. We're a non-profit organization."

He also said he hopes the center maintains a district-wide vision, adding that it's not just a resource for The Academy at Shawnee.

"We're a JCPS resource," he said.

For now, Dennes says the future of the center is riding on finding a business model that makes it financially viable.

"We're pausing right now," she said. "We're looking."

Could the center close?

"At this point we're thinking," she said. "We've got to make it viable."

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