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Charter academy plan in the works
3-county regional school would offer focus on science, technology, engineering, math
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The gears are turning to get a new regional charter academy in North Georgia.

Officials from Hall, Lumpkin and White counties, the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency and North Georgia College & State University met Tuesday to discuss plans for a charter school.

The counties received a grant earlier this year to make plans for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school.

"We're going to pursue it but at a reasonable pace," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. "(The meeting) was looking into potential STEM academies across the country we could visit and steal some ideas from and incorporate the ideas into a regional academy. ... I thought it was a very positive first step."

The idea of a STEM academy is to go beyond traditional learning opportunities and open the curriculum up to students' interests and curiosities, said Joe Covert, assistant professor of science education at North Georgia.

"As far as we know, it's the first one in the state of Georgia as well that would be trying to cross boundaries like that and work with multiple school systems," Covert said.

Counties would be able to combine resources and make more classes available.

Covert said now, if one county does not have enough students interested in a biomechanics class, the class is not created. But by adding students from other counties and doing lessons via video feed, it makes it more practical to offer the courses.

For example, an anatomy class at the STEM academy might be physically taught at the Hall County school, but academy students in White and Lumpkin counties would be able to interact and watch it via video streaming.

"The site for the school (in Hall) will be on the North Hall High School campus," said Terry Sapp, educator on special assignment for Hall County Schools. "According to Georgia's charter school laws, based on the number of seats that are available, if North Hall fills all of those seats, there are no available seats. Attendance is determined by lottery. The same would work for Lumpkin and White counties."

Sapp said the STEM grant and academy, as of now, focuses on engineering, energy and medical career preparation.

"It's a different day and time. Kids have got to have more opportunities and move on when they're ready and offer options rather than just a regular education classroom," said Dewey Moye, Lumpkin County superintendent. "We've got to look at options and try to continue to improve the way we deliver services to children."

Covert said the group discussed existing STEM academies to visit in Dayton, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minn., and Alexandria, Va. Sapp said the Dayton location is the only regional STEM academy in the nation that they know of, and they will also visit a local academy in Rockdale County.

"Designing a charter is dreaming a school, so it could look very different from what we all know as a traditional school. ... My timeline is that we have all of our visits completed by the end of February so we can get to the business of designing this charter," Sapp said. "The charter is due to the state August 2012 ... which would mean the school would open with its first class in August 2013."

Moye said the team didn't need to reinvent the wheel. If something is working in one of the sites they'll visit, there's a good chance it could work in the North Region STEM Academy.

"Rather than school systems being isolated and autonomous, meeting as a group and sharing our resources to work collaboratively together just has a lot of potential," Moye said. "We have great technical colleges in this region as well. We can pool together and really improve and have a model for this country, and hopefully attract business and investment."

There are other opportunities with the academy as well. Though North Georgia is serving in an advisory capacity, Covert wants to see the university work with STEM teachers on professional learning.

He said one possibility discussed at this week's meeting was a summer institute, where Hall, White and Lumpkin students could all stay at North Georgia to take higher-level science and math classes, possibly for college credit.

"It is another area for students that we don't yet have," said Debra Seabolt, assistant superintendent in White County. "We have many students who could benefit from a STEM classroom. I think it's a great thing to explore this as a group. ... I hope it comes to fruition."