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Wauka Mountains specialty classes expand opportunities for students
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Teacher Lauren Fair has her Culinary Arts students making vanilla wafer spiders at Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy. Jake Jansen, 6, at right, and classmates also get to eat their work. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Archery. Flute. Learning Chinese. Cooking.

Those may all sound like adult hobbies, but for the elementary students at Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy, those subjects comprise just another day at school.

“Our children get the opportunity to be introduced to many, many different areas of expertise,” said Assistant Principal Susan Nelson. “When the little ones come in, we give them lots of opportunities to experience many different things ... then, as they progress through our school, they soon begin to learn what they’re good at, what they love and what they, too, can become passionate about.”

Wauka Mountain became a charter school in 2010, allowing teachers and administrators to not only focus on traditional subjects but also on those specialty classes. Students get to choose which topics they are most interested in and then, rather than taking those classes only once a week, they spend a significant amount of time focused on those subjects.

“For example, instead of just rotating children through art, music, physical education and computer on a four-day rotation, which is typical, our children have choice classes,” Principal Jo Dinnan previously said.

They choose two topics, going on to take those classes daily on a 10-week rotation. If they are interested in a topic, they can continue for another 10 weeks. If not, no harm done: They move on to another subject that interests them.

“We just give (students) a lot of flexibility,” Dinnan has said.

Test scores show the approach is working. For example, third-grade scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in 2012 were decent: 90.9 percent met or exceeded standards in reading that year.

For 2013, that number jumped to 97.6 percent meeting or exceeding standards.

In fact, all third-grade scores jumped, with social studies being the most significant: from 71.2 percent meeting or exceeding standards in 2012 to 88.9 percent in 2013.

In other grade levels, CRCT scores mostly remained comparable between the two years.

Nelson said she feels the addition of the specialty classes has helped increase those scores in two ways.

“The children want to be in school, for one thing,” Nelson said. “They don’t want to miss their specialty classes so they’re here more. And they get upset if their parents want to take them out for doctor’s appointments or trips or things like that. We have a benefit of the children wanting to be here because they want to participate.”

Additionally, the specialty classes help reinforce what they’re learning in class, she said.

For example, in their culinary arts class Tuesday, first-grade students were creating spiders out of peanut butter, vanilla wafers and pretzels.

Not only were they learning practical kitchen skills, they also incorporated a math lesson by measuring ingredients and counting how many legs a spider has. They even had a language lesson, coming up with synonyms for the word ‘delicious.’

“I think with culinary arts, you can touch on a little bit of everything,” said teacher Lauren Fair. “You can hit math every day. You can incorporate science. You can incorporate just a little bit of everything.”

During any given 10 weeks, there are 36 to 38 specialty classes. While the first-grade students were making their edible spiders, third-grade students were learning archery in the gym. Fourth-graders were split into Spanish or Chinese classes.

Another option includes horseback riding. While the students don’t actually ride horses, they visit a nearby barn weekly to learn how to care for the animals.

Along with increasing test scores, the specialty classes helped the school earn state recognition from the Georgia Association of Elementary School Principals, in the form of the 2013 School Bell Award.

Funding comes from a variety of sources. The school budget is meticulously planned, and it uses outside resources as much as possible, Nelson said. A business or parent will make a monetary or materials donation.

“We dreamed it, and we thought ‘How could we make it work?’” Nelson said.

Next on the wish list are a tennis court and a dance floor with a ballet barre. School leaders are also looking at how to best judge whether or not a student has grasped the material.

“As we grow as a charter (school), you see where you can change and how you can tweak it to make it better,” Nelson said. “We’re starting to look at our assessments and what we’re asking our students to do, and (then) giving them some choice in how they’re showing (what they’ve learned).”