A $175,000 planning grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will help launch New London’s second charter school.
The School District of New London’s Next Generation Academy will provide individualized education to about 125 students in 6th-12th grade, and will join the School of Enterprise Marketing as the second charter school in the district.
Charter schools are public schools, accountable to their authorizing agency for performance measures included in the charter contract. In this case, the authorizing agency is the School District of New London’s Board of Education.
Charter schools are free from most state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for results. Charter schools must employ licensed teachers, involve parents, administer statewide tests, and comply with federal regulations that govern all public schools. Under state law, school districts can authorize an unlimited number of charter schools.
During the summer of 2011, New London held a “High School Summit” to determine what steps had to be taken to meet the needs of all students. The summit was titled “Call for Change-How Will We Become a World Class School?” Summit participants determined indicators for each category: Communication and Collaboration, Technology, Curriculum, Relevance/Authentic Assessment, Attendance, Environment, Goals and Rigor, Relationships, Community, Accountability, Life Skills and Respect, Student Engagement, Competency-Based, Leadership, Calendar and Structure, and Portfolios/E-folios.
Student interviews were also conducted in an effort to understand student perceptions of the educational experience. In their conversations, high school students articulated a need for specific feedback related to learning. Students sought at minimum, timely, constructive feedback and relished the possibility of redoing assignments or assessments in an effort to attain mastery. They shared their hope that schedules and calendars could be approached flexibly. Supportive relationships of adults other than parents were commonly noted as making a positive difference in motivation and ultimately achievement. Students spoke of mentors who helped them make sense of other teachers’ expectations.
Educators reported to have made a positive difference were described as having a supportive teaching style in which students found more helpful than rigid teaching styles. It was evident that independent, supportive teachers created learning environments in which students could take ownership of their education. These teachers encouraged students’ initiative using supportive language, enabling them to understand the purpose of class activities and stretching them to become self-regulated learners.
After reviewing the evidence, the School District of New London decided there was an opportunity to identify a learning experience was vastly different from the traditional setting. Just tweaking New London’s current high school was not going to meet these challenges for students needing a new path. The idea for the Next Generation Academy was proposed and a committee made up of students, teachers, parents, and administrators began working on the initiative.
“We want to take the best of what we know from face-to-face and online education and combine it into a blended-learning environment,” said District Administrator Bill Fitzpatrick. “Our plan is to create very personalized education based on aptitude, interest, and our ability to best fill the needs of our students.”
“Charter schools operate under a five-year contract,” explained Kathy Gwidt, Director of Teaching and Learning. “After the five year period, the school board has the option to renew the contract if the charter school has proven successful.” Fitzpatrick and Gwidt said the location of the new charter school is still being considered, but should be finalized by January. “We have several opportunities,” Fitzpatrick said. “First, we have to determine the kind of experience we want for the kids, and then find the best location to accommodate that vision.”
“The Next Generation Academy will be a competency and proficiency based learning experience for students,” said Gwidt. “Student learning plans will vary. A traditional classroom setup meets the needs of many students, but not all of them. Some look to extend learning in a way that exceeds available opportunities while others look to explore areas of interest that are not offered in a traditional setting. We want to reach all students.”
Gwidt said some students leave the district to attend virtual schools that offer the options they seek.
“Virtual learning will be a big part of the new charter school,” she stated. “We’ve found that of the students who leave our district for virtual instruction, 80 percent come back to our district within a year-and they’re credit deficient.
“We’ve been working with Wisconsin Virtual Schools, and we’re getting a better understanding of what students are looking for in this experience,” said Gwidt. “We want to ensure that students are successful in whatever learning experience they choose. If they participate in our Virtual School, we connect them with local teachers who consistently check in on them, and if needed, push them to complete their classes. We want students to be able to try something different, but have a ‘safety net’ in place. They can learn in many different ways, but we want to make sure that the experience prepares them for a successful future.”
According to the executive summary, the vision of the Next Generation Academy is to create a dynamic learning environment not bound by time or location where the world becomes the classroom so the classroom impacts the world. This will be accomplished by instilling a lifelong desire to learn and excel by aiding each individual’s intellectual aptitude, motivation, curiosity and commitment to learn by focusing on strengths and interests.
Four specific aspects of the academy’s educational program will be featured, including:
• Self-Regulated Learning: Teachers within the academy will implement strategies of self-regulation in a way that fosters motivation to learn and achieve. They will work to help students become successful, independent learners who monitor and manage their learning, skills and habits.
• Blended Learning: Classroom instruction will require online components that extend learning beyond the classroom and beyond the school day. This concept shifts from lecture- to student-centered instruction in which students become active and interactive learners.
• Self-Directed Learning: Teachers will be tasked with enhancing students’ abilities for accessing self-directed learning, as recent research shows that self-directed learning is a required skill needed for work in the 21st century.
• Individualized Learning Plan: These plans allow students to be in charge of their own learning. Recent research conducted by the global nonprofit Education Development Center found that over the course of a 20-day program, students gained 28 percentage points from pre-test to post-test using individualized learning plans and individualized learning.
Gwidt explained that extensive research will be conducted this year, and the Next Generation Academy will open at the start of the 2013-14 school year.