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Wood's Mill offering new choices, more freedom this fall
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What started as an alternative high school choice for the Gainesville school system now presents a number of options for students who, for whatever reason, don’t quite fit in with the traditional high school setting.

There’s a lot of newness for Wood’s Mill Academy this upcoming school year. A new principal in Daryl White. A couple of new classes. A new option for middle school students. New evening classes.

It’s an exciting time for White.

“It gives that smaller, more connected feel,” he said about the setup of the academy. “You can have more of a family sense of schooling.”

It certainly is smaller than nearby Gainesville High School. When Wood’s Mill opens in August, White expects fewer than 200 students.

Wood’s Mill Academy is an umbrella for three programs: the high school, the middle school and Gainesville Learning Academy, a nonoptional program for students with disciplinary problems.

The middle school is new for this year. It will initially be for seventh- and eighth-graders, but White expects it to expand to include sixth-graders as well for the following school year. It will be much like the high school in that students and their parents make the choice to attend.

Middle school classes will move into the wing currently occupied by Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School students, who are expected to move out in October once construction for their new elementary school is complete.

The middle school will follow the blended and online learning environment much like the high school, with additional guidance from teachers. Middle school students will also learn about different career and post-secondary educational options as a way to begin preparing for the future.

The high school opened three years ago, using the school system’s online and blended learning to help students learn at their own pace. Students have access to teachers if they run into problems, and are encouraged to work ahead if they are able and willing to do so.

Juniors and seniors often take advantage of work opportunities and internships. White’s goal is to have 100 percent of juniors and seniors in some sort of work program, capitalizing on the relationships the school currently has with the local Goodwill and Kubota businesses.

It’s all about introducing students to different career choices. Some of these internships may even lead to jobs in the future, White said, but all students benefit from the “soft skills” they learn at these positions, like appropriate job interview attire or how to fill out an application.

“Why not get a snapshot of (careers) while it’s free in public school?” White asked.

Another new addition for high school students will be night school classes from 4-7 p.m. These classes will be open to students who can’t attend regular day classes for whatever reason. Subjects will rotate over the course of the week; for example, math will be the focus one night, science the next night, and so on. Night students, who will be keeping up with their studies via virtual learning, will be required to attend at least one evening per week.
Also different this year will be the addition of physical education and art classes. The art program will only begin at a part-time status, but White hopes there will be enough support to make it a full-time program.

“Kids need that physical component,” White said. “They do too much sitting now, whether it’s in front of the TV or in front of the computer, whether it’s at home or school.”

White said these classes were implemented following a series of discussions between Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer and Wood’s Mill students, who had asked for these classes.

A hands-on learning day will be implemented for every Friday, when students will take what they’re learning and apply it to real-world situations.

“We’re looking at adopting a stream nearby,” White said. “One part of that could be going to that stream, doing some cleanup as well as checking water quality and things of that nature.”

It’s all about not only showing how education translates to a real world setting, but that it can also be fun.

White is not under any illusions. He knows that the Wood’s Mill model may provide ways for teenagers to slack off.
“There is an amount of freedom and flexibility, but there’s also a great amount of responsibility,” he said. “Ultimately this is our reputation on the line. We love our students. We stand behind our students.”

Students who do take undue advantage of that freedom and flexibility will see some privileges taken away while being moved to a more traditional classroom setting. Once they demonstrate more maturity, White said, they can regain more options.

Wood’s Mill High School was initially developed as a different model in attracting and retaining high school students.

“In just three years, the school has received awards for its use of blended learning, and increased our graduation rate,” Dyer said. She said that with the Fair Street students moving to their new school, Wood’s Mill will be able to accept more students and continue to grow.

White said the model of Wood’s Mill is necessary for some students.

“It’s something in which students can come to and get caught up,” he said. “Or move ahead, if they want to graduate and move on to college or a career quickly.”