Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences

Charter schools: A new way of learning

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On June 3, HOY en Delaware had the opportunity to visit the Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences (SAAS), located in Georgetown, Delaware.

SAAS was the first charter school to open in Sussex County.

Delaware’s charter school law was passed in 1995 so parents would have more public education choices for their children.

According to the State of Delaware webpage “The creation of the charter school legislation is intended to improve student learning; encourage the use of different and innovative school environments and teaching and learning methods; provide parents and students with improved measures of school performance and greater opportunities in choosing public schools within and outside their school districts; and to provide for a well-educated community.”

At a minimum, charter schools are held to the same standards as other public schools.

Students are to meet all of the state testing standards related to promotion guidelines and regulations as they apply to discipline, attendance, and health requirements.

Currently, 18 charter schools are open in Delaware. Three more have been approved and are scheduled to open in August 2010.

When SAAS opened in the fall of 2000, there were 225 students enrolled.

Now, there are 323 students, according to Delaware Charter Schools Network’s webpage (DCSN, www.decharternetwork.org).

SAAS’s goal is to prepare each student for the challenges of his or her High School years through a participative and inclusive curriculum, as well as to meet high standards in academics and behavior.

The school provides tours and public information meetings in the fall for interested parents of Delaware students eligible to attend grades 6 through 8 who may apply for admission to SAAS.

After the school determines the number of anticipated sixth grade openings for the upcoming school year in November, applications are accepted during the Open Application Period (this year, between November 20, 2009 and January 8, 2010).

If more applications are received during the Open Application Period than there are anticipated openings, then a lottery is held to select the students that will be invited to enroll for the upcoming school year.

Some applicants are given preference during the Open Application Period and are not subject to the lottery. Applicants who have an older sibling who will be concurrently attending the Sussex Academy and those that are children of either staff members or Founding Board members are automatically offered a position provided that their applications are received during the Open Application Period.

“This school doesn’t choose its students, the students choose this school,” said Patricia Oliphant, Director of the school. “We only intend to create a dynamic educational environment that lends itself to an open, caring, and stimulating learning experience for every student.”

The requirements needed for students to attend SAAS: (1) to be in grades six through eight; and, (2) to reside in Delaware.

The Sussex Academy Board of Directors choose the Expeditionary Learning (EL) as the instructional framework. EL seeks to change school cultures by activating curricula and motivating students and teachers to take responsibility for their own learning. The EL model focuses on literacy, reflection, and interdisciplinary project-based learning. As a result, all SAAS students keep portfolios of their work.

“The portfolio is a collection of works that shows what the student has been working on, learning to do, and thinking about each of the three years at Sussex Academy,” said Bill Pfaff, director of the Small Business Development Center in Georgetown, founder member, and father of former SAAS student. “Each student portfolio is both a showcase of the student’s best work and an illustration of his/her growth over time.

It’s unique to the individual student through his/her choices about artifacts and reflections.”

Students at SAAS follow an accelerated curriculum that meets or exceeds state standards. Multiage classes remain with the same teacher or team of teachers for at least two years. All students keep portfolios of their work and assessment is ongoing.

Required to wear school uniforms, all of them are divided three teams: Blaze, Challengers and Ocean. Throughout the year, each team creates and updates their portfolio checklist. The checklist includes the following: cover letter, resume, goals, goals update, grade reports, and sections to represent each content area with reflections.

During the sixth grade students collect their work in a binder and present their portfolios to their parents in the spring. The teachers determine the format of these presentations. In the seventh grade the students present their portfolios during 30 to 45 minutes presentation to outside reviewers. These reviewers are parent volunteers. In the eighth grade the students again present their portfolios to their parents and/or outside reviewers.

The team of teachers is responsible for teaching the content standards and skills in reading, writing, art, mathematics, social studies, and science. Other subjects such as physical education, music, computer, and other co-curricular classes are taught outside the core academic areas.

Students can participate in Chorus and Band. Also, they participate in clubs of their choosing such as photography, debate, computer, and yearbook.

As a public school, the academy receives state funding for transportation. SAAS’s bus routes operate on a hub system with no door-to-door busing.

One of the principles of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum model is community service. For this reason, each SAAS student is required to participate in ten hours of community service each year.

Passing the state tests is one component required for passing to the next grade. Not all students enrolling in SAAS have been adequately prepared for this type of instruction. For this reason, the Sussex Academy has established several modes to offer academic support for students in need. SAAS has high expectations for academic performance and student decorum.

SAAS practice has been to combine sixth and seventh grade students in multi-age teams. Therefore, a student stays with the same team of teachers throughout the sixth and seventh grades. As we said before, one of the ways students will track their academic progress is by maintaining a portfolio of their work throughout these two years.

Toward the end of seventh grade, each student will present his or her portfolio of work to a portfolio committee for review.

Eighth grade teams will not be multi-aged. The eighth grade teaching team will provide students with a strong focus on the academic disciplines to prepare them for High School studies.

Funding for the school comes from two major areas. Operating expenses are paid for by the state and the local district of Delaware. Based on the number of students, the state provides money for the operating expenses including teacher salaries, but not for facilities. In fact, the school does not have a kitchen. SAAS has contracted with the Laurel School District to provide lunch daily. Orders are paid for in advance.

Students may pack their lunch.

In conclusion, it can be said that SAAS is one of the most interesting educational projects that it can be found in Delaware at this moment.

SAAS is proud of its teachers. Each of them possesses unique talents in working with adolescents and has training and expertise in the particular learning styles of middle school students. SAAS is also proud of its students.

The staff has a dream for the future ‘To be able of founding a High School which prepare the students for the University under the instructional framework of the Expeditionary Learning’. They are sure that the good marks of SAAS students will made it possible.

This year’s DSTP (Delaware Student Testing Program) results, released by the Delaware Department of Education on July 16, show how competitive SAAS is: Ranking 1st in Writing and 2nd in Reading and Mathematics, out of 46 Eighth Grade Schools in the state of Delaware.

SAAS has a “5 Start School” (Out of 5) according to @link href=’http://www.schooldigger.com’target=”_blank”>www.schooldigger.com/link for its high ranks among Delaware public middle schools and districts.

To learn more about SAAS, visit their webpage @link href=’http://www.sussexacademy.org
‘target=”_blank”>www.sussexacademy.org
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