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Elementary school launches pilot program
Mount Vernon emphasizes hands-on projects that combine subjects
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Mount Vernon Elementary School may be on its way to charter school status.

This fall, the school is launching a pilot program for fifth-graders — students will produce hands-on projects, including several academic areas in one unit. At the end of the unit, students will create digital portfolios for presentation.

“Last summer we started searching for different programs that could become a charter school for us,” Principal Connie Daniels said. “It’s not an easy process and not something you can do overnight.”

Daniels and fifth-grade teachers visited the DaVinci Academy at West Hall Middle School, Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Mabry Middle School in Cobb County and New Hope Middle School in Whitfield County to get ideas about how to transition fifth-graders to challenging middle school programs.

“We thought about being a junior DaVinci but do things a little differently, so we took pieces from the schools,” Daniels said. “Mabry has a film festival where students film science or social studies projects and do a movie night where parents can come in to watch.”

The Mount Vernon program will target two areas — humanities, with a focus on drama, music, art social action and kinesthetics, and the STEM program, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Most projects will include both areas, but students will be encouraged to explore different focuses and find their interests.

“A lot of times, when students get to fifth grade and middle school, they get jaded and lose that enthusiasm for learning,” said Funmi Oke, a fifth-grade math and reading teacher. “At the Ron Clark Academy, the students were excited that the teachers had so much energy, and it’s an environment that allows kids to be kids. If you can get down on their level, they’ll meet you halfway.”

At the academy, teachers educate and entertain their students at the same time. Teachers dress up, Clark sometimes raps his lectures and rooms are transformed into planets, ancient ruins or hospitals to teach hands-on lessons.

“What you teach really doesn’t change,” Oke said. “I teach the same math I taught in London, but what happens is when they get older, a proportion of kids lose that hunger for learning at home.”

The students showed respect, too, which is a major goal for Oke.

“We’re very lucky here (in Hall County) with the kind of children we have. They come from supportive families,” she said. “But we want to set them on fire (for learning) before they leave elementary school. ... It’s more than academics, it’s also about making sure they are respectful, polite and ambassadors of being a good student.”

The coursework will be more challenging, and students will be encouraged to work together on projects, just as they might do in a career.

“Society has a lot to learn in the future generations. Everyone wants to take personal credit, and everyone wants to be the boss,” said Lisa Collins, another fifth-grade teacher. “Students will learn how to share responsibilities and alternate them. They do get tired of having the same objective and being picked as the best writer or technology person. It’ll give them a chance to explore their strengths.”

Mount Vernon is working with North Hall Middle School, which also is searching for a charter school program of its own. The partnership will help streamline the transition process for the fifth-graders.

“We want to build a bridge between elementary and middle school to raise the expectations for academic opportunities for our kids,” North Hall Principal Brad Brown said. “Education has changed so much in the past few years, and this is a wonderful opportunity to make it relevant and real to students in the areas they’re interested in.”

The North Hall program is still developing but plans to target five subject areas, allowing students to choose their focus. Curriculum also will include leadership and community service skills.

“It’s important for teachers to understand we’re educating kids for the jobs not yet created,” Oke said. “They have to be ready to compete globally and tackle tasks that make them think, not just regurgitate facts.”