Dayton Regional STEM School learns from controversy

By Amanda Dee


Photo: “The Experience of Women” by STEM students Elizabeth Worthen, Sherry Zhu, Kalie Roundtree, and Beth Snyder
Sometimes, “kids” can say what “adults” struggle to spit out.

This May, those paying attention to the 24-hour news cycle saw it bent to clutch onto a three-month old story involving ninth-graders, an art/history project, and the city of Dayton. Just as quickly as traditional news outlets took a match to the story, it seemed to extinguish, leaving behind a faded and incomplete outline behind viewer eyelids.

“If the report from [Channel 2 and WHIO] was all that people saw, then it doesn’t really give the complete story,” history teacher Kevin Lydy says. “It seems like it’s just a once-and-done. And the last two projects I’ve done at the school – I’m still working on a project that I did two years ago. A lot of these things take time. I think from a lot of people’s standpoint, this project was kind of like a sound byte; I don’t want it to be a sound byte. I want it to be a novel. I want people to take their time and be engaged with it, and hopefully, it’s there for the long haul.”

Lydy is addressing his Dayton Regional STEM School ninth-graders’ history and art project that was on display this February, Black History Month, at the Dayton Convention Center for two days before the center removed the artwork due to its “political nature” and “complaints from [the center’s] tenants and guests who visit,” as cited in the center’s official statement to Channel 2 in May.

As most history teachers would preach, Lydy emphasizes to his students the connection of the past to the present, though his method of teaching deviates from the traditional mold in most high school classrooms. One of his former students involved in the project, Elizabeth Worthen, a rising 10th-grader, explains, “In U.S. history this year, we went through, not chronologically like wars and stuff, the different experiences of groups: African-Americans, women, LGBT, Native-Americans, just different groups that would have experienced [history] differently than what is told in the typical narrative.” The artwork depicted U.S. history from behind a black lens, referencing contemporary phenomena like the recent police violence against black men such as Freddie Gray and disproportionate black incarceration rates. The students’ artist statements hung next to the pieces, explaining the meaning and motivation behind the work. The other half of the artwork depicting history from a female framework never saw the light at the convention center in March, Women’s History Month, as planned.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and at the school, it also stands for Strategies That Engage Minds. As nearly all projects go at the Dayton Regional STEM School, this one integrated multiple subjects and engaged students with the community. This time, however, the reactions from the community engaged students in a way that neither the students nor the faculty or administration could have predicted.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and Racial Justice NOW! petitioned to reinstall the artwork. City Commissioner Joey Williams publicly apologized to the students at a city commission meeting. All of this happened nearly three months after the fact.

The series of events was a catalyzed chain reaction starting in February and reupping in May. Throughout the working stages of the project, art instructor Jenny Montgomery hosted critiques with members of the community, including Wright State professors and local police officers. Within a week after the artwork came down in February, members of the convention center came in to explain the decision. The director, Katy Crosby, and a few other members of the city’s Human Relations Council followed suit, encouraging the students to express themselves through outlets like slam poetry. And, some of them took up that suggestion and performed at the Victoria Theatre.

“I don’t think it was an easy position for [the city] to be in at all, and I really admired the fact that they came out and stood in front of the kids and said, you know, here’s what happened,” Montgomery says. “[They told the students] we have these roles in our job and that we have to follow these guidelines. Personally, we appreciate the work, we think it’s quality work, we find it to be compelling and important. A couple of the people who came said they had taken photographs of the work and shared it with their family and friends. So, they were very, I think, appreciative of the students’ work, even though at the same time they were required to remove it.”

“Something that surprised me was that it wasn’t the people through the convention center that wanted it taken down,” Worthen adds. “They were just as disappointed as we were. But when you have so many people screaming hot air, it’s hard to get things done, and [the project’s] just something that needs to be done…”

obviously, when we heard they had been taken down from the convention center, we were all heartbroken ’cause we had put our blood, sweat, and tears into it, but it was something that got a conversation going, which was the point in the first place.”

Worthen worked with fellow students Sherry Zhu, Kalie Roundtree, and Beth Snyder to create “The Experience of Women,” silhouettes of three magazine covers, one showing the perception of women in the 19th century, one today, and one portraying what magazine covers should look like. As their artist statement reads, “When comparing the past to now, women have gained more equalities and became more independent than before. However, women are still not as equal as men. In the future, Americans should realize that people shouldn’t be treated differently just based on their sex.”

Worthen goes on to explain her interpretation of the negative reactions to the work: “The reason people were complaining about it was because they weren’t reading our artist statements, which really explain what’s going on. It’s just people seeing something that’s going on and saying, ‘I think that’s discriminatory’ and taking it the wrong way instead of looking at it and reading the artist’s statement and understanding the piece.”

Negative responses exist, but the positive responses flooded out many of them. Representatives from Mock Turtle Zine, Dayton Visual Arts Center (DVAC), Dayton Art Institute, Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, K12 Gallery & Tejas, and the Sideshow art show offered to feature the work. The school accepted the offer from DVAC, which will exhibit the work in 2017.

According to Lydy, the educational objectives of the project were clear from “the get-go”: “It’s not like these things just randomly happen, but that there’s been a theme, a running theme – whether it’s marginalization or objectification on the parts of both African-Americans and women – and that there have been attempts to rectify the situation. I’ve always felt that if all you do is just present the negativity, kids kind of leave the classroom feeling dejected…and so what I want to do is give them the sense that here is the way that other people in the past have challenged the status quo or have challenged the discrimination – how could we do something similar, in that respect?”

The project sought to answer three questions: “What’s the same? What’s changed? And what still needs to change?” When Lydy presented the goals to Montgomery, she immediately thought the name Kara Walker.

“Kara Walker is a contemporary artist: Her work is really powerful and deals with very similar issues,” she explains. “It’s silhouettes, which I think is really appealing because it’s kind of the every-[wo]man imitation to place yourself in a framework or in a context that’s easy to identify with.”

Yet, as the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the news cycle again tragically prove, race is a sensitive topic in U.S. discourse. When the students’ posters came down, the students had to engage in that discourse.

“The students had range of feelings,” Montgomery recalls. “Some students said, ‘You know, we understand, we understand the policy, we understand why this happened.’ Some students also expressed that while they understood, they felt frustrated. Not just because they had spent so much time and effort on the project and it wasn’t seen, but that adults were having a hard time discussing issues that needed to be talked about and they felt like they were sweeping them under the rug, not necessarily the people from the convention center, but in general people who were complaining about having the work up. They felt like these issues are in their face, in their realities every day, it’s all over the news, and it’s important to be able to have these discussions – and not talking about it is dangerous.”

Once traditional media outlets picked up the story and more parties got involved, more arguments broke through the surface on Facebook feeds and other social media – Montgomery cites criticisms about STEM education and the role of art in STEM as examples. “And [the students’] response was overwhelmingly mature, respectful, empathetic – I was so proud of them,” she says.

“I think that this microcosm of the work getting taken down and the controversy over it represents the sort of macrocosm of the social issues that we were trying to express,” Worthen says.

Lydy started in the blueprint stages of the Dayton Regional STEM School in 2008, as did Montgomery, who calls the school a “flat organization,” meaning that students, parents, and teachers all played key roles in the development of the school and its mission to use project-based learning to prepare students for the jobs awaiting them in the region and beyond. Seventy-four students started in 2009; now more than 600 are investing their time and abilities into the school.

“I think that it’s no different whether you’re in science, whether you’re in social studies, whether you’re in math, we want them to think critically and think about different perspectives. They’re going into careers where, more than ever before, they’re going to be working with different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses and religions and ethnicities, and I think that having that ability to at least empathize with other people who are different from you is something that’s really valuable,” says Arch Grieve, community outreach director, journalism teacher, and former social studies and economics teacher.

The STEM students and teachers walk under the school’s mantra painted above one of the hallway entrances every day: “The real world starts here.” A project can range from studying the effects of globalization on the water quality of the neighboring stream to designing a bottle rocket and pitching it in Chinese, but each one seeks to produce a tangible, meaningful result.

Although the school’s acronym represents its focus on preparing students for 21st century jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, the artistically leaning Worthen fits right in. And after one year and one controversy at the school, Worthen can’t wait for class to start back up this month. Is this the biggest thing she’ll experience at the school? “It’s STEM,” she states, matter-of-factly. “Maybe that’s the biggest thing that’ll happen, but I don’t think so.”


To view and read the artwork and artist statements, please visit For more information about the Dayton Regional STEM School or the 2017 exhibition, please visit, find Dayton Regional STEM School on Facebook at @thedrss, or call 937.256.3777.

Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at


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Amanda Dee
Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at

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