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School venture opens minds to inquiry, learning
Chestnut Elementary lets students focus on areas of interest with individualized study
Fifth-grade students Emily Munoz, left, and Julia Bowers are dressed in period clothing to give a presentation on Civil War leaders. The unit was part of the Creative School of Inquiry class at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School.

Several kids who once felt indifferent about school are responding to a new venture at Chestnut Elementary School, Principal Sabrina May said.

Earlier this school year, officials launched the Creative School of Inquiry, which gives students more control and flexibility in their learning.

"They're experiencing education in a whole new way, and it's challenging them," May said.

The program is based on a "school within a school" model as students learn separately from their peers in a self-contained classroom. The units they study are inquiry-based, meaning students discover answers to their questions, and focus on student interest.

The flexibility also extends to teachers, who formerly taught in traditional classrooms.

"It's a way I always imagined I could teach but was never able to," third-grade teacher Emily Brown said.

Thursday, Brown's students were poring over projects they created from their units that month, which included magnets and freedom fighters such as Paul Revere and Susan B. Anthony. May said parents were invited to see the classes in action.

Many of the projects involved magnet inventions. Third-grader Chandler Allen had designed what he called a "mango-glove," to help his catching game. His plan was to have a magnet contained in a glove and football.

"All of the boys love football. I have some football video games at home," Allen said.

Down the hallway, in the fifth-grade classroom, several students were dressed in 19th century costumes for their unit on the Civil War. Adam Benefield said he has a strong interest in the Navy, which inspired part of his project.

The student had studied ironclads, the steam-propelled metal warships first used in the Civil War era.

"I'm really interested in water and the Navy. You give your life for the country and you don't know if you might drown," Benefield said. "It's something I respect."

Projects such as these, that are generated based on a student's interest, is part of the school's objective. The program guides students to question, research and create, May said.

Several years ago, school leaders sketched out a plan for a school that would rely heavily on technology and engage and challenge students who wanted to learn in a different way. The school received grant money from the Hall County school district and other organizations to help with the program and the purchase of technology.

May described the lessons the school uses today as "individualized."

"For those in the classroom who knew a lot of the information, they get that extension. It's not just more work, its different work," she said.

The school still adheres to the Georgia Performance Standards and the students still have regular lessons in math, reading and other subject areas. The Creative School of Inquiry is also a school of choice, rather than a charter school.

"It's similar to Da Vinci Academy," May said, of the school that falls under the umbrella of South Hall Middle School.

This year, the school is only offering the program to grades three, four and five but they expect to add kindergarten through third grade next year. Another aim is to draw more students from across the city, May said. However, the school will not be able to offer transportation to students outside of the area.

The school will hold parent information meetings in January, February and March. So far, there is no limit on student acceptance into the program.

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