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Elementary school wants more independent learning
Students would use investigative skills to learn with proposed program
Chestnut Mountain Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Lori Lehmer conducts a classroom exercise Thursday. Administrators at Chestnut Mountain are considering a program for third- through fifth-graders that would allow more independent, research-based learning opportunities. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

If Chestnut Mountain Elementary School administrators get their way, instead of teachers giving directions, it would be the students leading the way.

Chestnut staff recently approached the Hall County Board of Education with a proposal to launch a Creative Inquiry program at the school.

“Teachers will use the Georgia Performance Standards to develop broad, thematic units by integrating subjects. (While) tapping into students’ interests, teachers will guide students to develop questions about the theme and conduct research to discover answers to their questions,” said Sabrina May, school principal.

“Through questioning, research and discovery, students will develop a deep understanding of the (performance standards). Students will demonstrate what they have learned in a creative way — such as writing and performing plays or creating multimedia presentations.”

The goal of the program is to help students gain a deeper understanding of required subjects by tapping into their individual interests. In developing the program, administrators took the time to conduct their own investigation.

“Over the course of several years, Chestnut Mountain staff members have researched standards-based classrooms. We have visited schools in Atlanta as well as schools in our area — most of which were using the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program,” said May.

“Through these visits, our teachers became interested in inquiry-based instruction and developing (themed) units. In addition, our school council and PTO board brainstormed ideas of how to meet the community’s needs. The idea of creative inquiry was birthed from (these) ‘dream a school’ activities.”

This “dream school” concept would involve more independent learning and less teacher-based instruction. So instead of being lectured about a subject, students would use their own investigative skills to uncover answers.

Administrators are proposing that the program be initially open to a couple of classrooms at each level from third through fifth grade.

“The details of the application process are still being developed. Students in the Chestnut community who are not accepted into the program will be placed in a (traditional) classroom. These students, too, would benefit from the program because of the shared professional learning, resources and strategies,” May said. “Students outside of the Chestnut community who are not accepted would attend their home school.”

With enrollment numbers that have been declining for a number of reasons — including the poor economy, other elementary specialty programs and home schooling — Chestnut staff hopes the Creative Inquiry program brings in more students.

Because the program would take place in existing classrooms, with teachers already at the school, start-up costs would be limited to about $90,000 for netbooks and wireless Internet access, which would allow students to complete independent research in their classrooms. May said the money could come from special-purpose local-option sales tax funds that can’t be “utilized for personnel or other general fund expenditures.”

Chestnut administrators hope to get a green light from the school board by the spring, so that the program could be launched this fall.