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Chestatee charter middle school puts students on early career paths
School has had 25 field trips this year
Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development teacher Laurie Brown shows a pig’s heart to students in her Grey’s Anatomy class Monday morning. The students are learning about anatomy and body composition. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Middle-school students at Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development are spending more time in their community this year than ever before.

“So far, we’ve had about 25 field trips,” Principal Suzanne Jarrard said.

The Gainesville school aims to put students on an early career track, by having students interact with professionals and offering real-world connections. In Hall County, students are expected to have a career path in mind by ninth grade, Jarrard said.

“We don’t want students to have to randomly choose — we want them to have prior knowledge,” she said.

Chestatee Middle School was approved as a charter school last June and has developed interest groups to encourage engagement with students. Project SOAR (Seeking Out Authentic Relationships) clusters students into common areas of interest, and students learn by creating projects based on the interest.

The school’s name was changed to Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development.

“We believe every student has gifts and talents and our role as educators is to facilitate what those gifts and talents are,” Jarrard said.

While the school still has standard courses in math, English and other core curriculum, staff have added nearly 50 specialty classes for students to choose from.

The students create their own academic path with an online inventory, which produces a profile of a students’ career interests and learning styles. The program is called “Career Cruising.”

With input from teachers and the online inventory, the young people narrow down their choice.

For instance, if a student’s inventory is “art,” he or she may decide to enroll in a rock history class or a class on fashion, Jarrard said.

The specialty classes, or “academies” are held for 3 1/2 hours each week. About 30 minutes of that time is spent reading books on the subject.

Jarrard’s daughter, Macey, is part of the science and technology inventory profile at Chestatee. The 13-year-old signed up for Laurie Brown’s class “Grey’s Anatomy,” which teaches students about anatomy and dissection. Monday, students investigated a pig heart and took turns feeling the organ with gloved hands.

“I want to be a vet and I thought it would be a good idea to see how the body works,” she said. “It’s really in depth.”

After students spend time studying the subject material in the classroom, teachers often find relevant activities or jobs to study in the community.

Students in Michelle Clifton’s forensic decomposition class created worm bins, a process of composting using various worms in a large plastic tub. In the near future, the class will visit an organic farm along with the school’s culinary class.

“They will see composting on the farm, they’ll see herbs growing and the process by which local restaurants purchase produce,” Jarrard said.

Other field trips include the forensic academy’s recent day at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab, and the real estate academy’s trip to a local property on the market. The students developed a sales brochure for the property.

The concept for Chestatee, and its focus on inquiry and talent development, were several years in the making. In 2005, the school launched a reading class for genres such as fiction, but that weren’t tied to any specific interest. School leaders decided to introduce the SOAR program to better connect students to their passions.

“It wasn’t like what we have today though. It was more about fun and building relationships with kids,” Jarrard said.

The school wanted to build more real-world connections in its specialty classes and came across the concept they use today by Sally Reis, who authored “The Schoolwide Enrichment Model.”

“The bells went off in our head that this fits what we are trying to do,” Jarrard said.

Among its selections this year, students can enroll in “Comic Books,” a class that discusses the history of comics, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” which teaches students about budgeting and management and a wide range of other topics.

The subjects were generated by teacher interest, but students also have some input, Jarrad said.

Seventh-grader Anna Harwood is part of the Chestatee Academy News Team, a specialty class which creates the morning announcement and develops videos for special events.

She said this is her first encounter with an industry she hopes to enter one day.

“I think I’ll do this when I grow up. I like being in front of the camera,” she said.

Across the hall, Reed Johnson, 13, said he enjoys broadcasting live on WEGL 93.5-FM, the school’s radio station. The signal reaches people within a two-mile radius, and student presenters offer school news, sports and interviews.

“I like figuring out the problems as we go along, that’s my favorite part. Sometimes we forget what to say so we do a lot of improvising,” Johnson said.

Jarrard said that not all inventory profiles match with a students’ interests, and students are free to pick other options. She said the students have assumed more control of their learning and there is never a need for discipline during academy time, as student engagement has increased.

“You know it’s working when you see students come in on their own time at 7 a.m. for a radio show. When the teacher isn’t telling them what to do and they’re doing it on their own, you know you did something right,” she said.

Last week, the school received word that it was awarded a $200,000 implementation grant from the state, which will be used to fund programs and technology, Jarrard said.

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