When it comes to education, more students and parents are asking for choices.
Nearly 1,500 students in the Hall County School District will participate in the Programs of Choice at either the high or middle school levels next year.
“Offering Programs of Choice is one important way we are doing more for our students,” said Sally Krisel, director of innovative and advanced programs for the Hall system.
There are nine programs at the high school level, and two at both the middle school and elementary levels.
Programs of Choice are separate from the district’s charter schools, though on the surface they seem similar. Charter schools are open to all students living in the school’s zoned district. Then enrollment is opened to those outside the attendance zone. If there aren’t enough seats to satisfy demand, a lottery system is used to select students.
Students in Programs of Choice are selected through a competitive application process. Also, the programs are not their own separate schools. For example, World Language Academy is a charter school. The Johnson International Scholars Academy is a Program of Choice, housed at Johnson High School.
School officials say the options, many with specific interests or “niches,” give students and parents the options they desire.
Krisel said many reform efforts across the country have failed in recent decades, mostly because they focus on remediation.
“They start with the notion of looking for what’s wrong with children,” she said. “When we do that, we create an artificial ceiling on the unlimited potential of young people.”
Rather, she said, the district encourages teachers to look at students on an individual basis.
“Then, to the best of our ability, we tie the content standards we’ve been charged with teaching all children to those strengths and interests,” she said.
Three educators in three separate programs that launched this past year say students thrive in more individualized environments.
“Things went better than expected,” said North Hall High School Assistant Principal Ley Hathcock about the school’s STEM Academy. This program focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Only 19 freshmen signed up for the academy’s inaugural year. Next year, Hathcock expects 38 new freshmen along with the 19 sophomores.
He said most students respond well when given flexibility in how they learn.
The school year was also a success for the Earhart-Edison Academy at North Hall Middle School.
“It was better than we even thought it could be,” teacher Kathy Mellette said. “We’re going to leave a lot of it intact.”
The program initially opened for 70 sixth-grade students; next year there will be 79 seventh-graders and 70 new sixth-graders. There is also a small waiting list.
“You’re always worried, ‘How are you received?’” Mellette said. “‘How are you perceived?’ I think the overall effect is very positive. Our test scores were wonderful. We were very pleased with that.”
Earhart-Edison joined the Da Vinci Academy as the second middle school Program of Choice.
It was the same story at the Endless Possibilities in Creativity and Collaboration Academy at East Hall High School.
“I think it went like first years go,” instructor John Hardison said. “There were a lot of successes, and a lot of things to where you say, ‘I want to do this differently next year.’”
EPiCC’s inaugural year was closed to sophomores and juniors; next year those students will be included, along with some select ninth-grade students.
“I would say that students learn self-discipline, and obviously some struggled at the beginning,” Hardison said. “They had to be accountable. Did some struggle at first? Yeah. But to me, that’s part of it because normally those students would struggle when they get to college as a freshman.”
While many programs are expanding, there are no concrete plans to add new choices.
Krisel did not discuss the possibility of adding future programs, except to say she did not anticipate new programs being added anytime soon.
“We know our folks are continuing to dream, so I anticipate that we will add more programs in the future,” she said. “But nothing is in the final planning stages at this point.”