Saturday, December 01, 2007

Venture Academy: Educational Innovation Ahead

My family is considering embarking on a new adventure in our children’s education. We have been involved in the public school system for a dozen years since our first child started school. We have at least one child in each of high school, junior high, later elementary, and early elementary school. We also have one in private preschool. So we are experiencing the full spectrum right now.

My wife recently saw a small lawn sign advertising a new charter school that will open next fall. While all of the public schools our kids have attended have been relatively close to our home, Venture Academy will be about 10-15 minutes away (under good traffic and road conditions).

A couple of nights ago I attended a meeting for people interested in the academy. Venture Academy is being put together by a group of interested parents. This group has done a great deal of work to get the school chartered for K-8, obtain funding, recruit principal staff, and advance the construction of the facility. (They are applying to add grade 9 in the 09-10 school year.)

While charter schools are part of the public school system, they do not work under the auspices of any school district. They must still meet all of the same state and federal qualifications as do regular public schools. They must still accept any student that would otherwise attend regular public schools up to their enrollment levels. However, they are at liberty to design their own curriculum (within limits).

The school board for Venture Academy is made up of concerned parents. These are people that will be known and accessible to parents whose children attend the academy. There will be no massive administrative structure. No layers of middle management. Just the parents, the staff, and the kids. And while they cannot require such, they will ask parents to donate at least 30 hours of service to the school annually. (That should be no problem, since we already do far more than that at our local elementary school.)

The message came across very clearly at the meeting I attended that Venture Academy will be scrupulously frugal, and will allot its resources mostly to implementation of core principles, values, and curriculum. Fluff and elements that do not directly support the core will be minimized or eliminated. As if to underscore this, there were no handouts of any kind at the meeting, flashy or otherwise. They simply provided their website address.

Don’t expect to see any competitive athletic teams. There will be a music program, but I am concerned about the fact that there will be no foreign language program provided. I took a foreign language for six years when I was in school. My oldest two have taken foreign language since seventh grade. My family deeply values the development of foreign language skills.

While this sounds a lot like many other charter schools, Venture Academy intrigues me because it will employ a very innovative educational approach called Expeditionary Learning. This model (see FAQ) employs a hands-on approach that seeks to help students “learn with their mind, heart, and hands,” as explained in this Edutopia discussion.

Expeditionary Learning is a non-profit organization that provides extensive training and support for teachers and schools that use the model. The model has been used for a decade and a half with pretty decent results — certainly much better results than the traditional public school model. Schools that use this model have less bullying and fewer disciplinary problems because kids are actively involved in doing rather than in mostly sitting. The focus is on where a student is today and how to move that student forward rather than focusing on where that student is in relation to the other students at the same grade level.

Each trimester, students in each grade will undertake a project that will include elements of spending time in the outdoors and performing community service. The students will not only learn math, language, science, history, PE, arts, and other curricula, but they will implement these skills in an integrated way to gain an understanding of how these skills function together. This helps children understand the ‘why’ of much of the schoolwork they do.

The people putting together Venture Academy invited those that are interested to visit Entheos Academy in Salt Lake City, which I believe is currently in its second year. Some of the people involved in Venture were involved in the development of Entheos, so they could learn how it is done.

The way enrollment works is outlined by state law. The children of the founding members come first. All other student positions are awarded by lottery beginning with the oldest grades. If a student is selected, younger siblings of that student are placed in their appropriate grade. The lottery proceeds down through the grades for remaining vacancies.

We were told at the meeting that when a new charter school opens, many parents seek to enroll their children in grades K-2, but that enrollments tend to diminish as the grades increase. Older kids are already deeply integrated in the public school system. They have social ties. Both parents and children are used to the system they are in, so fewer are interested in moving to a new charter school. Of course, this means that those that do enroll their older kids have a great advantage in getting their younger kids enrolled. Charter schools often have long waiting lists for enrollment in early grades.

Why would we consider making this jump out of the traditional public school system? My fifth grader is a very bright boy. But he has been an outside-of-the-box thinker since birth. He doesn’t always perform well in traditional systems. His just sees things differently than most people. He tends to focus on factors upon which others tend not to focus.

We were very concerned about this son as he was going into second grade. Fortunately, he ended up with one of the world’s finest second grade teachers. She used rhyme, poetry, and music to teach almost everything. My son excelled under this method of learning, but so did the whole class. At the end of the year, this second grade class performed a dramatic reader’s theater of a rhyming children’s version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Few children actually read. Most had their parts memorized — well memorized. It was far beyond anything I’d ever seen second graders do.

You might say that Macbeth sounds like a dark tale for second graders, but it was fantastic. My son played the hero Macduff. I asked him what he learned from the play. He explained that he learned that people can want worldly things so badly that they will justify horrible deeds to get them, but that personal honor and standing for right brings its own rewards.

Again we are concerned about our son’s school performance. His second grade teacher taught him well by engaging his heart and mind. I can imagine how much better he will do if his hands are engaged as well as his heart and mind. That is what Expeditionary Learning is all about. Venture Academy also seeks to rescue kids from nature deficit disorder by engaging in learning in outdoor settings in addition to classroom settings.

The open enrollment season for Venture Academy’s 08-09 season wraps up in February. Then we will find out if our children will win the lottery and be accepted into the academy. If our family is selected, we are not obligated to accept. But unless something changes, I doubt we would decline.

Charter schools cannot solve all of the problems in our education system (see here). And it is known that charter schools actually harm private schools (see here). But my family can’t afford private school. And while I understand these problems, Venture Academy offers us an unprecedented opportunity to substantially improve the quality of our children’s education starting next fall. If this all comes together, I look forward to reporting on our experiences with Expeditionary Learning next school year.


y-intercept said...

I hope the charter school works out. In following the charter school issue, it looks like the fast majority that have tried to come into existence failed to take root.

The article on charter schools drawing more students from private schools than from public schools is a bit disheartening. In Utah, where there essentially are no private schools (96% of students on the taxpayers' dole in public schools), the charter schools are a welcome relief.

The long term hope is that a few of the charter schools succeed and that they might become private in the next generation.

Anonymous said...

I'm moving to Utah with my family this winter, and the first thing I did when we found out about the move was google charter schools. I wish there were more around, but I'm so pleased that there are some for me to explore. My oldest attended a charter in kindergarten, and I was in awe of how she excelled in that environment. We moved to another state where charters aren't an option, and I am truly disgusted with how little she has learned over the past 2 years in a 'regular' public school setting.

The greatest benefit of charters is that they get parents directly involved in the education of their children, and by agreeing to take less in public funds, the teachers are allowed to teach to their passions and lead more in the classroom, without being stifled by a ridiculous 1-size-fits-all curriculum. All kids learn differently, and there's a great chance that a child can excel when you teach him or her in a way they love to learn.

y-intercept, my experience has been that within a year or two of opening, charters outperform traditional schools by leaps and bounds. It has the benefits of private education without the excessive cost. We pay for schools with our tax dollars--it only seems right that parents should be able to choose how they want that money for their child spent.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of a Charter School parent, I am very happy with the school. It is a little too much like a public school, but they are finally pushing my daughter to meat her full potential. But that is probably way it is the highest ranked charter school according to the Sutherland Institute. Hope your experience is just as good as ours has been.