Monday, December 15, 2008

Our Venture Academy Experience So Far

My three younger children have been attending a new charter school named Venture Academy this year (as discussed in this 12/1/07 post). The first trimester ended last week, so we now have an idea of how things are going.

Starting a brand new school is a monumental task. Consider, for example, stocking and cataloging a brand new library for students grades K-8. This was really only possible due to generous donations and copious numbers of hours worked by dedicated volunteers.

The board had spent months gathering donated computer and office equipment, books, and needed supplies. These items were stored in a warehouse in the southern part of town. In July I worked with a crew of (mostly parent) volunteers and staff to move most of this stuff to the school, which is in the northern part of town. Volunteers and staff cleaned and prepared these things. Even with the generous donations, it was necessary to purchase many items.

Unlike your standard public school, almost all students arrive at this school and leave by private vehicle. We carpool with another family. The principal, who has run charter schools in other states, helped devise a drop-off and pick-up plan that provides for some efficiency and safety.

Another dissimilarity with your standard public school is that the entirely voluntary school board consists of parents. (Venture is a non-profit organization.) The board answers to the state board of education. There are no other layers of bureaucracy. Few, if any, of the teachers are unionized. This allows for more freedom in dealing with academic and personnel issues. Much of the field learning that has taken place would never happen in a traditional public school.

Learning Model
Venture is one of the few schools in Utah that follows the expeditionary learning model. Only Kindergarten is a separate grade. All other grades are gathered in multi-grade pods: 1-2, 3-5, and 6-8. (Grade 9 is coming next year.) The more advanced students help mentor less advanced students. In each pod are several mixed-grade ‘crews’ (not classes), each managed by a teacher. Students are active participants in their respective crews, where there is peer-to-peer teamwork.

Every trimester each pod has a primary focus called an expedition. Work from each subject is integrated into the expedition. The idea is to help students apply knowledge in a meaningful way instead of just learning theory. The Kindergarteners focused on trees and their related ecosystems, as did grades 1-2. The 3-5 pod’s expedition centered on birds and their habitats.

Students in the 6-8 pod work through three different expeditions centered around a single major focus. They put down their first, second, and third choice and end up being assigned to an expedition (usually their first choice). My middle child’s expedition focused on liberty. They looked at it from societal, individual, and natural points of view.

One of my middle school child’s electives was astronomy. This resulted in breaking out my Dad’s old telescope, many evenings viewing the autumn sky, and trips to the Ott Planetarium. Another elective is band, where he is rapidly developing into a pretty good euphonium player.

I was intrigued by the business elective in which some 6-8 students engaged. They developed and presented a business proposal to run a ‘school store,’ where they experimented with offering a variety of small-priced products. They learned in real terms about profits and losses, finally ending up with a net profit. They wrapped up the trimester by considering spending the profits on ‘grant proposals’ from teachers for crew supplies. For example, a science teacher applied for funds to build a model rocket launcher.

Volunteer Reliance
Parent involvement is a key principle to this education model. The school asks (but cannot legally require) each family to volunteer 30 hours annually. For part of my family’s volunteer hours, I designed and built a database that the school uses for tracking family volunteer hours. My wife has spent many hours entering data, working on the playground, correcting papers, and helping teachers.

We (like a few other families) have already put in our required time many times over. About 20% of families have already put in 30 hours. Another 30% have put in at least 10 hours. Another 37% have put in over five hours, but less than 10. A handful have put in very little so far. Some of this may be due to parents not being diligent in recording their volunteer time.

The new school is no utopia. There are still the same kinds of problems other schools have. Older students use foul language when they can get away with it. There have been a number of thefts of personal items from student backpacks. Some teacher and school items have disappeared as well. Disruptive students end up in the principal’s office. Some middle schoolers have been caught kissing during lunch free time. We’re not aware any of on-campus substance abuse problems.

My wife, who has had more direct contact with students, teachers, and other parents, says that it is her impression that there is a higher concentration of ‘problem’ students among the older grades. This seems to make sense. Parents are more willing to move kids to a new school when they are younger. Parents are reluctant to move older students with developed a social networks to a new school unless it’s necessary.

Many parents of the younger students at the school wanted a better learning model early in the child’s life. There was a lot of competition for the available spaces in the younger grades, so the population is less likely to be skewed toward kids with difficulties. The higher the grade, the less competition there was. Only parents with a high degree of motivation sought to move students into the higher grades. That favored parents concerned that their child did not work well with the standard model.

If my theory is correct, it would seem likely that as younger children grow and progress into the higher grades, the population will become less skewed toward problem students. We should know within four or five years.

While things are going reasonably well at the school, there are a fair number of glitches that are due to the newness of the situation. While the principal is experienced, the board is dealing with most of matters for the first time and many newly trained staff members have never executed the expeditionary learning model before. Experience will eventually remedy most of these issues.

One of Venture’s major issues has been its facility. The school needed to arrange for a facility prior to actually having any students. But it had no money to do that, since the state does not pay any of the school’s allotment until students are physically attending school.

The way most new charter schools deal with this is to hire a contractor that obtains funding. Then the school repays the contractor once it receives its funds from the state. Venture followed this same pattern, but when construction lending went south nationwide, so did the contractor’s ability to get appropriate financing. As the months passed without construction action, the board finally determined that it would have to lease an existing facility this year.

I am more than a little disgusted that several of the nearby school districts actively worked to stymie Venture’s attempts to lease a facility. It is just another example of how much public school districts hate competition. Despite their dirty tricks, Venture was finally able to lease an elementary school that had been shuttered for a year.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Venture received its own funding and was able to bond for the construction of a new facility that will support the expeditionary learning model. The new facility will be complete by summer.

So far we have found our experience with the new charter school to be acceptable. I have never seen my third grader as excited about any school subject as he has been about the sage grouse and the peregrine falcon. He knows more about these birds than most college freshman biology students. Moreover, he improved his reading, writing, and math skills as part of this learning.

We’re very grateful for the hard working board members that worked for several years to develop the concept of Venture Academy and turn it into a functioning school. Some of these people do not yet have children old enough to attend school. They did this to provide what they believe will be a superior educational environment for their kids in the future.

We will continue to work to make Venture Academy a success for our children and for many others. It is my hope that others around the state will take heart and do the work necessary to start many new charter schools.

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