Learning – their way

Charter high school gets good marks from students in debut year
By: 
Scott Girard

Photos by Scott Girard. Students get to decorate their own cubicle areas at the Exploration Academy, housed in the Verona Area High School’s K-Wing.

Jekar Smith works on a project in his cubicle, surrounded by other students doing the same, sometimes in groups or partners.

Adviser Kelly Jeffery helps Saoirse Keely-Zinkel with a project.

A typical day for a Verona high schooler consists of seven 50-minute periods, the same subjects at the same times each day.

But at the Verona Area School District’s charter high school, the Exploration Academy, a Monday morning might be spent on math, Tuesday in a seminar group class and Wednesday morning doing some research into human evolution.

It’s up to each student.

“The conversation centers around the individual student and their learning. ‘What can we do to engage you? … What are you passionate about? … How can we grow you as a learner?’” said Mike Murphy, EA’s principal and an assistant principal at Verona Area High School. “It becomes more of a conversation about learning, which is what it should be about, and less of a conversation about compliance.”

And while it’s not 100 percent free reign, the 60 students going through the first year of the Exploration Academy charter high school are pretty close.

Verona’s first charter high school opened last fall after the district approved its charter application in January 2013. The school allows for a more student-led approach, with students choosing their own projects and controlling much of their own schedules.

So far, staff and students say it’s a success, though it has not come without some growing pains.

In addition to an adjustment to a reversal of the traditional teacher-to-student teaching style, there was also the matter of learning how to use a form of feedback that doesn’t include traditional letter grades.

“It’s not as simple as ‘I’m just moving to a different school and I’m going to pick up right where I left off,’” adviser Chad Welty said. “It takes awhile to learn the project process, and we still have kids that started at the beginning of the year that are still trying to figure it out. But I’ve seen throughout the year, over time, where it just kind of clicks.”

Welty is one of three advisers at the school this year. The three split the 60 students into advisory groups and work with each student one-on-one to ensure they are on track with their chosen projects and learning goals. The school also has one special education teacher and part-time math and science specialists.

All of them work as a team to ensure their students meet the standards they need to graduate.

Same standards

While the students get to design their own projects, part of that design includes demonstrating a set of standards that all high school students across the state must meet to graduate.

“It just helps me get a lot more work done, and it’s less stress on me,” said EA student Max Driftmier. “I’m able to do more things that I want now. I’m just learning more because I like what I’m learning.”

The students work with their advisers, who help determine what standards a project meets. For example, ninth-grader Anthony Arnn recently spent time on a project about music artists to meet standards in writing, art, music and analysis.

The advisers meet with each student for around a half-hour every week to check in on what projects they’re working on and how each is going.

When a student is done with a project, he or she presents to the adviser, who gives the student feedback on a scale of “basic” to “exceeding,” rather than the letter grades from A-F. The adviser can offer advice on how to enhance the project, and a student has the option to go back and improve it.

“They talk to you about what you need to fix, and you get to fix it,” said junior Fabi Valdes. “You don’t get a grade on it, you don’t feel bad.”

The structure also doesn’t necessarily cut out traditional classes entirely. Students can take up to two classes at VAHS each semester.

The school includes seminar groups when multiple students are interested in the same subject, such as the “coffee klatch,” a group that meets and shares their writing projects.

Murphy said the student freedom changes not only the learning the students are doing, but can also improve their happiness and interest in school in general.

“Not only do they feel better, are they happier, are they more interested in being in school, but on top of that…they feel that they’re actually working harder and we’re doing more work than in the traditional classroom,” Murphy said. “This experience isn’t about the amount of work you do, it’s about is learning really taking place?”

Student feedback

Most of the students say they have enjoyed the new structure so far, and found it has increased their motivation to go to school.

“I’m excited every day to come, because you get to pick your schedule and stuff,” sophomore Savannah Stampfli said.

And her excitement is echoed by what the advisers and principals have seen and heard in general.

“I think that overall, everyone’s school experience is better than it was in a traditional school,” said adviser Sheila Stenseth. “We may have had one or two students who expressed, ‘I think traditional may be a bit better,’ but one or two students out of 60, that’s not bad.

“That was a pleasant surprise, because when you change things so drastically, you don’t know how the students are going to adjust to it, and whether it’ll be what they envisioned, but it seems to be.”

The school had students fill out a survey at the beginning of the year and again in January, and the results back up the anecdotal observations from Stenseth and the other advisers.

Among the most notable numbers were student happiness, with 98 percent of students responding “true” to the phrase “I am happier as a student at EA than in my previous educational experience,” and how much students learn, with 86 percent responding “true” to “In EA, I complete more work/learning than when I was in the traditional classroom.”

Some students came from previous low grades in the traditional setting, while others were high-achieving but showed low engagement levels, Murphy said.

Neither of those questions was part of the September survey, though some that were show how the students have grown throughout the year.

The percentage of students who felt they “often stop trying when work gets hard” dropped from 50 to 29.

And the biggest endorsement might just be the 36 applicants the school received for its 20 open spots in the 2014-15 school year, as it grows to 80 total students.

A big transition

Coming up with projects on their own, controlling their own schedule and adjusting to not getting an “A-F” grade did not happen with the flip of a switch for everyone.

After all, most students had spent the previous eight to 10 years in a traditional classroom setting.

“It’s a little strange,” student Chris Almond said of the feedback system. “I’m still trying to get used to it. I was in the regular school system pretty much my entire life, so a little hard adjusting, but once you get the hang of it, it gets pretty easy.”

And according to the survey data, plenty of students felt similarly about the school’s overall model, as the percentage who knew “what I should be doing and learning at EA” jumped from 61 in September to 98 in January.

For ninth-grader Caleb Haag, the transition was challenging because of the structure at the private schools he had previously attended.

“We did things I did not want to do, so I didn’t know what to expect when I came here,” Haag said. “But I’ve gotten into the swing of things and it’s very, very rewarding.”

The school has also brought opportunities some students would not have had in a traditional classroom. There’s a student of Stenseth’s, for example, who taught himself calculus 3 and another who is working on a college-level marine biology course.

“That’s not something he would’ve had an opportunity to do,” she said “So having those opportunities for students is fabulous. As educators, we are learning so much about how important pacing is to a student’s motivation and the learning environment.”

That hasn’t been the only learning for the advisers, either, as they also had to adjust from traditional education backgrounds to the new system along with their students.

“I’m so used to, in a traditional classroom, being like ‘OK, you need to get back to work, back to work, what should you be doing right now?’” said adviser Kelly Jeffery, who is new to the school this spring. “Whereas here that pressure needs to be pulled back on them because we’re trying to make students that are more independent and need to learn for themselves how not to procrastinate and use their time wisely.”

But the advisers have learned more than just a different model of education, Stenseth said. She said she’s been amazed by the “diversity of topics” her students have interest  in, and has enjoyed learning about subjects from rebuilding a desktop computer to music history from the 1950s to the ’90s.

“I’ve never learned so much in so many different areas in less than a year as I have in this school by learning from my students because of all of their interests,” Stenseth said.

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