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At Sardis, open classrooms lead to open minds
School uses its charter status to create more free-wheeling, hands-on lessons for students
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Susie Braswell, left, and Randy Cates of Alpha Team Search and Rescue speak to Sardis Elementary students about how they use their dogs to help find people who get lost in the woods.

Molly, a golden retriever, and Zena, a German shepherd, were recent guests of a Sardis Enrichment School class.

The search-and-rescue dogs were used to help solve the Meredith Emerson and UGA professor murder cases. Such guests are the norm rather than the exception in Sardis teacher Vicki Dougherty’s Crime Scene Investigation class.

Sardis Enrichment School is one of three charter schools in the Hall County school system where flexibility from state laws allow teachers to create a more engaging learning environment. The school features cluster groups on Friday afternoons that match students’ interests with teachers’ passions.

The result is an afternoon where students from different grades come together to live out their own academic dreams of participating in science-based clusters like crime scene investigation or an episode of "MythBusters," where kids can test whether Mentos mints and Diet Coke really do create fantastic explosions.

Other students spend their afternoons in arts-based clusters where Chestatee High School band students perform, or in history clusters where students bring history to life by dressing up as U.S. presidents or other American characters.

Parents, teachers and administrators said the school’s conversion to a charter program this fall has boosted parent involvement and made learning more fun for kids.

"I’ve been really amazed with the excitement and the enthusiasm of the students," said Sardis Assistant Principal Lisa Saxon. "It has cut back on discipline problems on Friday. Attendance is wonderful because they do not want to miss the clusters. I think we are teaching students to love learning."

While the majority of the school week at Sardis is similar to last year’s schedule, Friday afternoons mark the major change since the school has adopted charter status.

Sardis is the first school in the Hall system to build most of its instructional approach around students’ interests, as outlined in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. It serves as a blueprint for total school improvement that encourages students to exchange traditional roles as lesson-learners and doers-of-exercises for more challenging and enjoyable roles that require hands-on learning, firsthand investigations and the application of knowledge and thinking skills to complex problems.

Allison Conley, an instructional coach at Sardis, said the model is based on the Renzulli learning method, which allows teachers to teach the state curriculum through students’ interests and academic strong points. A student who likes race cars, for example, can be taught basic physics laws in the context of a racetrack. The Renzulli method has often been reserved for gifted students, but the Schoolwide Enrichment Model expands the method to all students of all ability levels in a school.

Conley said students help teachers mold lessons and even how they are tested. Students might determine that instead of writing a report, they will dress up as a history character and make a presentation to the class that includes biographical information.

"Students really drive the product," she said. "I think this has really opened up teachers’ eyes. It’s such a more meaningful way of learning and they’ll remember it forever. That will hopefully prepare them better for middle school, high school and college and the rest of their lives."

Saxon said the next step is for Sardis to take its learning projects out into the community and involve more service opportunities for students. The music cluster, for example, already performs at the Smoky Springs Retirement community.

Carol Peck, mother of Sardis third-grader Isabelle Peck, said she likes how the clusters allow students to explore potential careers.

"Even though they’re still young, they need to be thinking about that," she said.

Peck said she believes the new charter program is a hit, but would like to see more performing arts clusters at Sardis.

Spout Springs Elementary intends to apply for charter enrichment school status next fall. Pending state Board of Education approval, it could open as a charter school in 2011.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to the timeframe for Spout Springs' planned application.

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