School Board Gives Green Light to New Charter School
New School to Open in Fall
By Lisa Pett
The Stevens Point School Board voted 7-2 to approve the creation of the Stevens Point Expeditionary School- a new charter school with sights on the Jackson School site.
The board has agreed last week to a five-year contract with the school, which will open next fall with a class of 50 sixth graders and expand to include seventh and eighth grades in 2016 and 2017.
Expeditionary Learning is an educational model which utilizes inter-disciplinary project-based study. EL schools provide opportunities for students to study in-depth topics of community importance and encourages high levels of student involvement, achievement and emphasizes character development.
“This is a collaborative way of teaching and learning,” says Jen Zach, President of the Stevens Point Expeditionary Learning School (SPELS) Governance Board. “All aspects of the curriculum, math, science, reading are included and at the end of each project or expedition, the students will produce something that can be used by the community.”
“The EL school will be great for [students] who may not be benefitting from the current educational model [in our middle schools],” explains Zach.
Zach, a former teacher with the Tomorrow River Schools as well as a former Board of Education member, further states, “The Expeditionary Education model has a proven track record of success in charter schools across the country and here in Wisconsin, including the Marathon Venture Academy in Merrill.”
The SPELS will be lead by its governance board which will work with district administration according to details of the contract which is available online on the district’s website and its November 10th board packet. In a memo to the Board of Education, the governance board outlined the costs associated with running the charter school, as well as the funding expected through planning grants and anticipated implementation and dissemination grants from the Department of Education.
Projected costs to the district for the 2015-16 school year are estimated to be $358,000, including staff salaries and benefits, administrative, custodial, food service, transportation, and grounds. First year enrollment is capped at 50 students and the cost per student is estimated at $7,160.
The following year, the school will expand to 100 students, with 50 7th graders as well as 50 6th graders. Estimated costs: $558,000, or $5,580 per student.
Years three through five costs will increase to $802,000 annually as the school expands to 150 students in grades six through eight. The cost per student is estimated at $5,347, annually.
Currently, the Total District Cost (TDC) per student for the Stevens Point Area School District is $10,600, annually.
The SPELS has received two planning grants from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The first, for $150,000 in 2013, was repaid by the district after a decision was delayed on contract approval. The DPI awarded SPELS a second $150,000 planning grant this year.
The SPELS’ governance board fully expects to receive the projected implementation grants of $150,000 in 2015 and in 2016 and dissemination grants of $125,000 in 2016 and 2017. All expenditures by the school will follow the state DPI’s guidelines for charter schools.
In board discussions on the estimated costs for running the SPELS, Superintendent Atilla Weninger called the idea “progressive”.
“The board and the district does have the ability to fund the EL school as outlined, but [the board] is being asked to take a step that is pretty progressive, educationally,” he said. “And asked to balance the district’s mission to prepare every student for success with a careful approach to financing this project.”
Board Member Trish Baker said the number of students choosing to open-enroll out of the Stevens Point Area School District was a tipping point for her decision to support the project.
“This was a tough decision,” she said. “But I did the math and the numbers add up. Additionally, this is a way to not only attract new students to the district, but a way to stem the flow of students who are leaving to pursue other educational opportunities.”
“Last year, 151 students left the district,” she added. “This year, 170. There are currently 51 Stevens Point Students enrolled in the Tomorrow River Community School [in Amherst].” Some of those students may be interested in returning to the Expeditionary School.”
“This may be a step that the district can’t afford not to take,” said Weninger. “It creates additional educational opportunities [for our students] and does not take away funds the district is planning on using for teacher wages or other programs.”
But board member Lisa Totten disagreed, likening the charter school to a “want” rather than a “need” for the district. She and board member Kim Shirek cast the two dissenting votes.
The SPELS governance board will continue to work with the district administration on the next steps for the school, including hiring staff, choosing a location, and developing an application process for students.
The school will work with a lead teacher model, rather than with a principal. The teachers (one full time lead, two full time and one part time elective teacher) may come from outside, but may also be hired from within the district. No location has been chosen yet, but the Jackson Elementary site is a likely spot. It is the only district building currently empty, is being maintained, and, according to Jen Zach, has some unique features which make it ideal for Expeditionary Learning.
“It has an open concept that makes it an exceptional choice for Expeditionary Learning,” said Zach. “The school was the site of the Environmental Discovery Center [charter school] and has an established prairie. It has community gardens, is close to the Green Circle Trail and to the old Wisconsin River bed. It has natural and historical components which can be used as educational tools.”
Student and parent interest in the school is expected to be high. With the enrollment capped at 50 students next year, an application process will be developed and if the cap is reached, a lottery system will be in place to decide on slots. There is no cost for students to apply or attend public charter schools.
An open house and informational meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, January 14 at 7 pm at Ben Franklin Jr. High. A second “Slice Day” or chance for students and parents to experience Expeditionary Education in action is scheduled for Monday, January 19. The time and place for that event has not been set. But there are no scheduled classes for Stevens Point students due to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
More information on Expeditionary Learning can be found at ELSchools.org. For more information on the Stevens Point Expeditionary School or to sign up for their email list, go to www.stevenspointelschool.com.