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With the recession, some feel its time for an educational renaissance
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Laurie Stowe puts McEver Elementary students through some dance moves from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video Thursday afternoon in the school’s gymnasium. Stowe is a media specialist at the school.

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Hear Eloise Barron describe how teaching would change in Hall County’s new charter schools.

Going charter

Schools pursuing charters for change:

 

Sardis Elementary

Type of charter: Schoolwide enrichment

Progress: Expecting state Board of Education approval in May; could enact charter for 2010-11 school year

 

Martin Elementary

Type of charter: Science, technology and mathematics

Progress: Submitting letter of intent and charter petition by Nov. 1; could enact charter for 2011-12 school year

 

Wauka Mountain Elementary

Type of charter: Multiple intelligences

Progress: Submitting letter of intent and charter petition by Nov. 1; could enact charter for 2011-12 school year

 

Spout Springs Elementary

Type of charter: Schoolwide enrichment

Progress: Submitting letter of intent and charter petition by Nov. 1; could enact charter for 2011-12 school year

To learn more

Parent information meetings on The Da Vinci Academy

7 p.m. April 20, Hall County schools central office, 711 Green St.

11 a.m. April 21, Hall County schools central office

7 p.m. April 21, South Hall Middle School, 3215 Poplar Springs Road

7 p.m., April 23, at West Hall Middle School, 5470 McEver Road

Contact: 770-534-1080, www.hallco.org

From the Dark Ages came the Renaissance, the world’s most sweeping intellectual rebirth.

To it, we owe the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a telescope through which we can view the stars and the concept of a helicopter.

And though we aren’t now dying of the Black Plague on the streets of Florence, we are in a recession. Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said as America reels from economic chaos, the time is ripe for another educational rebirth that ignites creativity and spurs impassioned learning.

"I tend to want to focus on the opportunities and see this as a time when people are seeing an urgent need for change, changing the way we deliver services, change in the way we spend money, change in the way we utilize technology," Schofield said.

State budget cuts and dwindling local revenues have the Hall County school system drafting a budget for next year that’s $10 million smaller than this school year’s budget. Last month, 100 Hall County teachers were informed they would not be offered a job next year, largely as a result of the poor economy. Last week, all school system workers were told to brace for a 2-3 percent pay cut.

"... I honestly believe we’re at a crossroads," Schofield said. "And when I say ‘we,’ I mean we in the field of public education. We will go one of two ways: We will at some level cease to exist in the way that we’ve always thought of as public schools, or we will embrace this opportunity for a renaissance."

Schofield said he’s urging principals and teachers to seize the moment.

In addition to programs such as Habitat High and Hospitality High — which take students out of the school house and put them to work on Habitat for Humanity homes or at Lake Lanier Islands Resort — Schofield said charter schools are one way to create the flexibility needed for school-level reform.

The county opened its first charter school, the World Language Academy, in August. The state Department of Education approved Lanier Career Academy’s charter petition in February. Five more charter schools are in the works.

Meanwhile, the Gainesville school system operates as one of only a handful of charter systems in the state.

The charter movement

Hall County’s Sardis Elementary School is scheduled to become a Schoolwide Enrichment charter school for the 2010-11 school year. The charter will enable teachers to hone in on their students’ passions and teach state standards through the lens of students’ personal interests. Kids who dig race cars, for example, could be taught physics by relating velocity to how fast cars travel around a racetrack.

Martin, McEver, Wauka and Spout Springs elementary schools also are pursuing charter status, and could receive state approval in time to roll out their charter programs by the 2011-12 school year.

Gerald Boyd, school improvement specialist for Hall County schools, said earning charter status is an 18 month-long process to allow schools freedom from specific state regulations. A school’s faculty and parent community must approve a charter petition by an anonymous vote before the school can ask the state for approval.

"Becoming a charter school doesn’t involve just changing the sign up front," Boyd said.

He said charter schools gain more flexibility in class scheduling and instructing, and could receive a one-time implementation grant of up to $200,000, but the Hall County school board won’t be inundating charters with more funds than the schools have traditionally received.

"It will untie some hands in terms of operation of schools, but not in terms of funding," Boyd said.

The da Vinci model

Yet the new shining star of Hall County’s renaissance is not a charter school. The da Vinci Academy at South Hall Middle School, which will fling open its doors to Hall County’s brightest sixth- and seventh-graders in August, is a small pilot program.

Sally Krisel, rigor specialist for Hall County schools, said The da Vinci Academy likely will be housed in the new wing of South Hall Middle School while the rest of the building undergoes renovation next school year. The arts and science program will use six gifted teachers certified in multiple disciplines to instruct 120 students.

She said three Hall County teachers — Regina Goodman, Michelle Jager and Nick Scheman – concocted The da Vinci Academy when they were asked to conceptualize their "dream school." Krisel said the academy’s mission is to instill in young people lifelong intellectual curiosity and commitment to learning by building an extraordinary educational foundation on their strengths and interests.

"The time is so right on this because folks are looking for something unique, especially in science and math," Krisel said.

She said the program’s emphasis on challenging academic standards and creative productivity aims to turn out the scientists our nation is starving for. And she said middle school is just the place to start.

"We think it’s very appropriate," Krisel said. "The shades come down when they don’t see the connection between the things they’re learning and the things they love."

Krisel said the academy will use student interest in the arts or in the sciences as the foundation for advanced learning in all content areas. She said the pilot program will emphasize international education, technology and Spanish and Mandarin Chinese languages. It will operate as an extension of South Hall Middle School.

Due to budget constraints, the school board is shifting traditional South Hall Middle students to a different school building next year.

Every student in The da Vinci Academy will have a laptop computer. They’ll use wireless Internet access to provide learning through virtual schools and tours, independent projects and course work. Students will have the option to lease a laptop from the school, Krisel said.

As they learn, students will have their own "Museum of Inspired Learning" in which to showcase their projects. Students from local middle and elementary schools will be invited to tour the museum as da Vinci students teach other youngsters about their discoveries and interests.

Cindy White, a science and honors directed studies teacher at Chestatee Middle, will serve as science teacher and chief of staff at The da Vinci Academy. She said the museum concept has been a hit at Chestatee Middle, and she’s excited to have a permanent home for a student museum.

"This is like a dream come true," she said. "I have waited a long time to have this very special museum where students will work, learn and teach."

Improving mind and body

She said a typical day at The da Vinci Academy could begin with body and brain boosters, such as yoga. Students will then participate in discussion forums, instruction tailored to individual students’ needs and museum activities. They could wrap up the day with an afternoon working in the school’s sculpture garden that fuses art and horticulture.

The academy is a prototype for innovative ideas to come, Krisel said.

"Maybe because we don’t have money to put into textbooks that sit in lockers ... maybe that’s the kick in the seat of the pants we need to really examine some of our educational practices and see if we can do it better and more economically," she said. "And hopefully we can do it in a way we can think, ‘OK, why can’t we do it with 400 (students)? 1,000?’"

Eloise Barron, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Hall schools, said all county students, whether they attend charter schools, The da Vinci Academy or traditional schools, will be held to the same state test accountability under No Child Left Behind. There are no exceptions.

"Their scores will be thrown right in there with the rest of the county, so we’ll see if using these different modalities will make the scores look higher," Barron said. "We believe not only will the basics be covered more thoroughly, but they’ll get on into the higher-ordered thinking, as well."

Instead of teachers primarily using a textbook to teach the state math curriculum to charter and da Vinci students, teachers will take difference approaches via projects related to students’ interests. Krisel said that at The da Vinci Academy, for example, students will be taught the language arts standards as they write letters about local water quality to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Barron said the new learning approaches are more exciting for students but often require more creativity and planning by teacher.

Schofield said despite the bleak economic outlook that’s seeping into the educational realm, he believes it’s an exciting time to be an educator.

"Yes, we’ve lost 4 percent of our staff; we’re going to have to do more with less," he said. "... But am I going to be doom and gloom and ‘Is the sky falling?’ or is this an exciting time to be part of looking after the next generation?

"And our message to anybody who is going to be working in Hall County schools is that we need to choose the latter."

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