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Clusters let kids shape own learning program
North Hall school takes first step toward charter status
Will Anglin gets some help making a scrapbook from Kathi Chastain during a Making Memories enrichment cluster class Friday at Mount Vernon Elementary School. - photo by Tom Reed

It's Friday afternoon at Mount Vernon Elementary in North Hall.

Running's not allowed, so the school's nearly 700 students are power-walking with excitement down the green and white-tiled halls.

Mount Vernon has upgraded its clubs to something called enrichment clusters, and the students are eager to get to them.

The clusters are an experiment in project-based learning, which is what the school will focus on if it pursues charter status this fall.

"The work force is lacking workers that have skills in collaboration and problem-solving," Mount Vernon Principal Connie Daniels said, citing research and interviews with employers and college counselors.

Project-based learning focuses on critical thinking, analyzing and student-led solutions.

Fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms started implementing project-based learning this school year.

Enrichment clusters, which also began this year, are a fun way for the whole school to try it.

Whether it is sewing or saving animals, cooking or criminal justice, interior design or dance, students can choose from a dozen clusters based on their own interests. The end result is either a product, service or performance.

The students are having fun, but they are guiding their own learning.

"It's facilitated by the teacher," Media Specialist Kristi Crumpton said, "but what's happening is that these kids are dividing up and trying to decide how to accomplish a certain task."

In the Red, White and Blue cluster, Weston Davis, 11, stuffed a folded Peanuts comic inside a plastic Easter egg with two Jolly Rancher candies. In this cluster, fourth- and fifth-grade students brainstormed ways to thank soldiers while they are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I think it will boost their spirits," Davis said, placing the egg in a cardboard box with 100 others.

He joined the cluster because, as a peer ambassador who tutors other students, he likes to help people.

The students in the cluster came up with the idea and brought in old plastic Easter eggs from home.

Along with candy, the students figured out that comics and thank-you messages on strips of paper will fit inside the eggs.

Cathy Dial, a teacher for the gifted program, brought back the idea of enrichment clusters from a conference she attended last summer. What separates enrichment clusters from clubs, she said, is that the clusters are inquiry-based.

"The children are more involved," Dial said.

Last fall, the 21st Century Design cluster, facilitated by Crumpton, focused on what a modern classroom could look like. The students sent surveys to county schools about how they used classroom space and furniture. Once they analyzed the data and identified problems, they researched possible solutions what would improve the classrooms as a learning space.

The students presented their findings and recommendations to the Board of Education.

Daniels said the board members "could not believe that third-, fourth- and fifth-graders could be capable of this kind of work."

The clusters have given teachers a chance to use their other skills and talents.

Kathy Brechter is passing on her cake decorating hobby to fourth- and fifth-graders. Students in her cluster used frosting and shapes cut from colored fondant to make professionally-designed cakes.

"I like to see how creative everybody can be," Brechter said.

Madi Grace Kiser, a fifth-grader, finished piping the decorative frosting border of her cake. She couldn't decide between the polka dots, stars or heart fondant shapes. And she didn't have to.

"I decided to put them all on one cake," she said.

Daniels said that the school spent time researching
what kind of charter school would fit their community. They liked the idea of becoming a STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — school, but didn't want to ignore the humanities.

"Both of those fit into project-based learning," Daniels said.

Staff and parents will vote on whether Mount Vernon should be come a charter school this fall. The vote will go onto the Board of Education.

"What I get excited about is that they're getting everyone — parents, teachers, students - excited about creating their dream school," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

If approved by the BOE and the state, Mount Vernon will receive up to $300,000 in additional funding, along with the added flexibility in planning its curricula beginning the following year, fall 2012.