Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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The School of Arts and Sciences

Location Tallahassee, Fla.
Year First Chartered and Authorized 1999
Local district
Grades K-8
Enrollment 226
English Learners 2%
Subsidized Meals 19%
Special Needs 22%
Per Pupil Spending $5,750

A visitor to this school sees little that is typical of a traditional classroom. Students in multi-age classrooms range across three grades-K-2, 3-5, or 6-8. They are seated collegially at round tables rather than in rows of desks. They may be working on independent seatwork, cooperative learning with a partner or small group, or an interdisciplinary project. The goal sheets and checklists in students' folders let them manage their learning activities. The artifacts students select for their portfolios are an important measure of their achievement. Peer mediation and a student court help maintain school discipline, and all teachers and students are trained in conflict resolution and mediation.

According to Principal Debo Powers, the vision for the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) emerged from a group of educators and parents. The result is a school that centers around beliefs that learning is natural-since human beings are inherently curious-and that academics are only one component of education, best learned through hands-on activities that tap into real interest and through interdisciplinary approaches framed by large themes. High among the qualities valued at SAS are self-motivation, critical thinking, and creative expression. The school's unique curriculum design and program structures dovetail to support its mission "to facilitate individual educational ownership and responsible lifelong learners through interdisciplinary approaches to arts and sciences in a safe and nurturing environment."

SAS greeted its inaugural students in 1999, three years after first seeking a charter from the Leon County School District. Delays getting charter approval were followed with a series of frustrations in finding a suitable facility. In what might have been the last straw, just six weeks before the school was to open in August 1998, the school year had to be cancelled. Another facility had fallen through. The principal and teachers scrambled to find other positions for the year, a year that they turned into an opportunity to think and plan for yet another August. The continuing commitment to open the school was remarkable. "When you think about it," Powers says, "it's just amazing."

The students who are drawn to SAS, teachers estimate, include about one-third who have been home-schooled, one-third who select SAS specifically for its alternative pedagogy, and one-third who choose the school because previous schools did not meet their needs. Currently, SAS has a waiting list of 400 students for the school's 226 places. The student population is 62 percent white, 22 percent African American, and 9 percent Hispanic and Asian American; 22 percent qualify for special education services.

Program and Operations

SAS has three classrooms for each multi-age cluster-primary, intermediate, and middle school. Primary and intermediate classes have a maximum of 25 students and each class has a credentialed teacher and an associate teacher working as a team to facilitate instruction in all academic subject areas. In the middle school, classes rotate to different subject area teachers. Students in all grades take music, drama, art, Spanish, and physical education. Daily hands-on science is also a feature at every level.

Learning is driven by students' curiosity and is focused through a project-based interdisciplinary approach. Arts, science, foreign language, reading, writing, and mathematics are all integrated. For example, older students learning about Asia spent six weeks preparing projects whose topics ranged from sushi to Genghis Khan to modern-day sweat shops in China. Regardless of the topic, their teacher points out, "You get speaking skills, you get writing skills, and you get research skills."

Students stay with the same teacher for a three-year period, so teachers really get to know the individual students.

Instruction at all levels is highly individualized. In a K-2 classroom, where students are working in small groups with math manipulatives, some are learning subtraction using beads, others are learning about number place, while yet another group uses plastic coins to learn addition. Every student has an individual folder, indicating which activities he or she is ready to work on. The two teachers and a parent volunteer circulate around the room, working first with one child and then on to the next, asking questions, assisting, and providing direct instruction and support when necessary. Next door, students in another K-2 classroom work on literacy projects. A small group sits reading a story with one teacher, while another group works at a table with a teacher creating books. A few students work independently on a word game, and it is not easy to tell age or grade distinctions among students within the class.

Teachers find the multi-age classroom a powerful factor for cooperative learning, with older students naturally helping younger ones. Students are taught to work together, support is provided as needed, and no one is restricted from learning more by his or her particular age or grade. The principal explains that the younger students try to emulate the older students, and it raises the standard of work for everyone. SAS students are expected to work toward their personal best and to respect everyone. "No put downs" is an operating principle of the school and contributes to the self-confidence exhibited by students. "It's very, like, peaceful," a middle school student reports. "I've never seen a bully here."

Students stay with the same teacher for a three-year period, so teachers really get to know the individual needs and learning styles of their students. In addition to the continuity this provides, it contributes to the secure learning environment the school strives for. As one student says, "It's really a priority to have respect between the teachers and students. You don't have to be afraid of being embarrassed in front of the class or having them get mad at you. You feel free to talk to them." Students appreciate the freedom they are given to express themselves. For some this manifests in capes and plumes, one enjoys a spot of blue hair.

Teachers describe the natural transition of students who are new to the school and new to taking personal responsibility for their learning. "I don't want to tell them every move to make at every moment," one teacher explains, "so we do a lot of modeling. And we're constantly explaining our way of work. You just watch them flounder for a little while, you know. Their first projects aren't like everybody else's, but when they see what everybody else has done, their next projects are. You can just watch their growth."

Continuous Learning

Each year the staff analyze students' progress and use what they find to develop the schoolwide improvement plan and to set annual goals, which are published in the annual School Public Accountability Report. This process helps to keep teachers, administrators, and parents focused on the mission of the school, in both planning and implementation throughout the school year. Data from standardized tests are part of the mix, even though teachers uniformly say, "We don't teach to the tests."

Teachers do, however, use Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores to inform their practice. In reading, teachers use Scholastic's STAR reading inventory to get a baseline and then measure progress using FCAT scores. In 2002, when FCAT math scores were below the district average in grades 3-5, teachers developed school improvement objectives to focus on math instruction. With a $10,000 grant, they engaged in professional development around multi-age math methods. They adopted a hands-on approach to math instruction for grades K-5. After the training, when the new curriculum was implemented, third-grade FCAT math scores rose from 299 in 2002 to 335 in 2003, exceeding the state and the district averages, and showing an increase of 32 percent. Seventh- and eighth- grade FCAT math scores in 2003 were the highest in the district, and eighth-grade FCAT scores were second in the state, behind a school that admits only gifted students. This year FCAT math and reading scores exceeded the district average at every grade.

In a school with no grades and no report cards, students are very involved in evaluating their own learning. Students select all the work in their portfolios, choosing the work that best demonstrates progress towards academic goals and mastery of the appropriate Sunshine State Standards, as well as the work of which they are most proud. Students organize their portfolios on the basis of the multiple intelligences identified by scholar Howard Gardner.

Parents and Partners

At least twice a year parents meet with their child and the child's teachers to go over the child's portfolio. Typically, a student and his or her parents come in before the scheduled meeting with the teachers so that the child has a chance to orient parents to the portfolio. Then the teachers join them and the teachers talk with the child and ask questions about various pieces of work, with the parents observing. According to one teacher, the process is very affirming: "The child is able to tell, 'This is me. It's all about me.' And it really is."

In a school with no grades and no report cards, students are very involved in evaluating their own learning.

Parents like the fact that the school's developmental approach is grounded in the principles of how children learn and that they can be highly involved in their children's education. For the many parents who home-schooled their children, enrolling them in SAS was the first time they were willing to entrust their children to a public school. Parents also express satisfaction that there is not a lot of homework at SAS, so children have time to develop artistic, theatrical, and musical interests. Almost half of SAS students participate in an after-school program that features specialty classes such as yoga, puppetry, African dance, nature craft, chess, track, moviemaking, and the like.

Six parents serve on the 13-member school board. Other ways SAS parents are involved include personnel hiring, fundraising, acquiring furniture and supplies, providing transportation, maintaining the school building, volunteering in classrooms, supervising on the playground and on field trips, and organizing teacher appreciation events.

Maintaining its early support from educators at nearby Florida State University (FSU), SAS has relationships with a number of programs there: the fine arts museum, the science education department, the family and child services department, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the music school, and the physics department all contribute to the school. Science mentorships-at FSU and local wildlife centers-have involved students in scientific inquiry and the work of real scientists.

Governance and Accountability

Governance of the school is at several levels. The school advisory council consists of three students, three teachers, three parents, and one board member. Their role is to write the school improvement plan and to recommend individuals for the school board. The 13 board members make a three-year commitment, with a third of the members changing each year. Their role is to set policy, oversee finances, and evaluate the principal. Each spring the board engages in strategic planning. The school also has a teacher leadership council, student government, and PTSO. A management team includes the principal, assistant principal/CFO, and the office staff.

Parents like the fact that the school's developmental approach is grounded in the principles of how children learn.

SAS has a supportive, positive relationship with its charter authorizer, the local Leon County School District. SAS is electronically connected to the district database system and has access to district e-mail. The principal attends district principals' meetings, and SAS staff are welcome to participate in district professional development opportunities. The district provides physical plant consultation and inspections, and SAS pays the district for food, transportation, and insurance services. The school also pays the district 5 percent of its state and federal funding.

The school operates on an annual budget of about $1.3 million, which includes funding of about $5,000 per pupil. Finances are tight, and board members look enviously at the half-cent sales tax revenue that other Leon County public schools receive. Yet when the school's state funding was cut by $60,000, instead of economizing by leaving a position vacant when the music teacher took maternity leave, parents raised the money necessary to continue the music program.

Success is measured many ways at the School of Arts and Sciences. Recent FCAT math and reading scores exceeded the district average at every grade. Seventh- and eighth-grade math scores were the highest in the district, with the eighth-grade scores ranking second in the state. Last year only one teacher left the school. Not a single student was on a behavior contract. A teacher laughingly recalls the complaints from members of the Student Court. "They think everybody is too good. They never have enough court time." Another teacher reflects on the compassion engendered in the students. "When extremely low, low, low kids get up to do their presentations, the audience is rapt. I mean these kids cannot give them enough attention and support."

For Principal Powers, the performance of SAS middle school students at last year's Model United Nations Conference at FSU is emblematic. Two middle schools were invited and all the other teams were from high schools. "Well, they gave six awards, and our students took three of them. Afterward, we were saying, 'How did our kids win against those high school students? They're obviously younger, they haven't had as much experience, they're not any smarter. What is it?' I think it's that they get to speak and perform in an environment where you're not laughed at, ridiculed, put down, made fun of, so they develop this kind of confidence. They can get up there and they can put together their ideas and communicate. That's success to me."

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009