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Alternative schooling offers new options

By Marilyn Jones

Students at the Delta program discuss classwork.

Your child is five. This is the big year, the year he or she enters the real world forever. It is the year when most children begin their formal education. Although the law in Pennsylvania does not require school attendance until age eight, most people send their children starting with kindergarten.
So you thrust your innocent child, like it or not, into a vortex of teachers, administrators, experts, school board directors, government regulators, and John Q. Public. You watch her leave their secure, friendly, individually regulated nests for the uncertain mass managed warehouses of learning. Although many children spend years before this in daycare centers or with care providers, this is the first time they must attend school by order of society’s norms, then by order of the court, and with little choice about where they will go, who will teach her, and what she will encounter. It can be terrifying – not for the students, but for the parents.
Some parents automatically and comfortably send their children to the public school assigned to them. They put them on the bus, smile, and happily wave bye-bye. Some do the same, then go home and cry. Other parents are wary and look for alternatives to the mass education system. They are not looking necessarily because they think that the local schools are not good, but because they have a particular philosophy of learning, socialization, or religion they think would be better for their child. So they begin the confusing investigation for educational options, not certain about what they are actually looking for, what is available, or where to find it.
What they find is a variety of options available for different age groups. One of these options is the “charter school.” According to the National Charter School Resource Center: “Charter schools are publicly funded, independently operated schools that are allowed to operate with more autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for increased accountability.”
They also must offer something distinctly different than the regular public school system. That is a very tall order, and the teachers and administrators of both the Wonderland charter school and the Centre Learning Community charter school (CLC) are well aware of this charge.
Wonderland Charter School
According to one of their leaflets, The Wonderland Charter School in State College meets this requirement by offering a: “Differentiated Education Plan (DEP) to fit each child’s needs using the Wonderland Curriculum and specifically developed objective standards. This is a somewhat similar idea to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) offered in mainstream schools only to children who need learning support.”
One of the unique features of Wonderland, which now encompasses kindergarten through third grade and seeks to include grades four and five, is the idea of teaching to mastery. If children are proficient in an area, they move them forward regardless of grade. If they are not, they reteach them.
“We don’t compare the children to each other, we compare them to themselves,” said Chief Executive Officer Hal Ohnmeis. “If a child is blocked, the teacher changes the curriculum [and gets help if needed]. [There is] continual feedback.”
Although they do use a direct instruction curriculum called Distar, “teachers have the ability to change daily if necessary” to meet the students’ needs.
Also separating them from other schools is their student-to-teacher ratio. There are currently 68 students with a teaching staff of eight.
Ohnmeis’ wife Marilyn Ohnmeis, who he proudly says got “a broad view of education from teaching in a lot of areas” due to her husband’s career in the Army Rangers, started the school as a kindergarten program.
Charter schools are free for everyone, but they must give priority to local residents. Then after the initial enrollment period ends, they have to accept any child in Pennsylvania as long as the parent provides transportation.
Describing another feature that makes their school stand out, Ohnmeis says, “One basic difference is mainstream education uses implicit education, meaning to surround the child with information and let them discover the right answer. We use explicit instruction. We define that as teaching the children the rules of the subject, the basic fundamentals of the subject, and how to go from the known to the unknown.” Their leaflet also defines explicit instruction as “teachers providing clear modeling and guided practice to students, thereby demonstrating exactly what students must know.”
“We teach them to be thinkers, critical thinkers,” says Ohnmeis.
The Charter Learning Center
Following Wonderland (or any other public school), for students from fifth through eighth grade there is another well-established charter school in State College. The Charter Learning Center offers a 12-to-1 ratio of students to teacher and a project- and technology- based learning curriculum. The brainchild of Dr. Kyle Peck and Dr. Mark Toci, the school received its charter from the state in 1998.
According to CLC’s website: “Project-based learning is the core of CLC’s curriculum. CLC teachers design real world projects that integrate a variety of knowledge and skills. A CLC project could integrate aspects of science, social studies, and math - as well as rely on technology, writing, and problem solving skills. This is a distinct departure from fragmented subject areas. Also, CLC projects are real world situations. As a result of these real world projects, students perform because of an intrinsic desire to do so, not to avoid punishment or to gain awards.
For example, Toci said that one of the next projects some students are participating in is building a recumbent bicycle. The students must first find instructions on the Internet. Then, Toci said, as “building instructions are often confusing,” they need to rewrite them (including diagrams and other graphics and images). The original is taken away and they will use their own understanding and instructions to build the bike. The students will document the whole project by video taping all the steps and then posting them to a web site they create. Along side the building process “they are looking at the history of transportation, and how it has changed the world.” They are also studying alternative forms of transportation, gears, gear ratios, etc.
In other words, this is an “integrated” curriculum style, where reading, writing, thinking, decision making, math, social studies, and science are all or mostly touched upon while completing one project. This is not a concept unfamiliar to other district schools, but it is easier to actually implement in a small school with instructors who have multiple certifications and are all technologically savvy.
They do, however, incorporate some traditional aspects to their daily schedule. They have a class specifically for math because, Toci says, “It’s so heavily tracked.” Of course, they have to follow all state requirements and offer physical education, art, etc., as well as learning support and guidance counseling.
“We’re a community,” says Toci. “Parents can come to the classroom and hang out a bit. They can go right to the teachers (and therefore) most problems are solved very directly.”
For example, he said, “All the stakeholders were on board with the new math curriculum.”
The school has two fifth/sixth grade classes, and two seventh/eighth grade classes.
In their last year (eighth grade), students work on an individual project, somewhat like the state-required senior project. One student, whose family was going on a mission trip to Haiti, “raised money and acquired backpacks and materials for a school in Haiti, then delivered the backpacks in person.”
Toci said that one of the school’s main emphases is that they would like to “put kids in a situation so that they can do things and solve problems, create things, complete projects that require skill development, and knowledge acquisition.”
He is very dedicated to his school, which is doing well enough to be planning an expansion. Toci, being respectful of other educational approaches, adds, “we really, really do a good job, but everybody doesn’t need to be like us.”
Students, who would like to continue their education in a small school environment after CLC, can attend Delta, which is part of the State College Area School District, but is a small school in a separate location that takes students from seventh grade all the way to high school graduation.
The Delta Program is an unusual option that is available locally. According to its website, it “is a democratic school of choice available to students in grades 7-12 who enrolled in State College Area School District…..
“The Delta Program is founded upon building strong relationships between the faculty, student body, and families,”a according to the website. “Our primary goal is to be a strong community that provides a safe nurturing environment for all stakeholders. Delta focuses on a shared leadership model between parents, students, and faculty. Our program offers an educational environment for students which features personal attention through regular weekly advising with faculty, small class size, flexible scheduling to include classes at the High School and/or Penn State, and experiential classrooms in the community.”
“Three things I love about this school are we have the opportunity and we are strongly encouraged to build relationships with students,” said English teacher Gary Masquelier. “I know them and their parents very well…. Second, I’m empowered to make decisions that are effective for the school. We do those decisions mostly through consensus. This is bottom up governance. (Anyone) can bring up ideas; kids are involved in the decision-making. It is a democratic school….. and three, I’m encouraged to teach my passions. My curriculum changes every year. My passion often becomes contagious, my enthusiasm – I can’t hide it and the children catch it.”
The students agree.
“I went to a small school before,” said Jojo (last names withheld). “[I didn’t like] The idea of going to school with thousands of kids who didn’t care about each other and where I wasn’t known. I think Delta is like that perfect balance. Delta finds a way to make it work.”
Deb went first to the CLC charter school because she “was unhappy in the mainstream environment.”
“[It] was an obvious choice to go to Delta,” said Deb. “What I like is the sense of community. It makes someone feel like they belong somewhere.”
“I went to a large middle school,” Clara said. “I stopped loving learning. I felt like I was a number.”
She also said that it seemed like the teachers got tired of teaching the same thing over and over and that by the time the teacher came to her class, “It was no longer special to them.”
“I chose to come here because the freedom mostly appealed to me – how you can go downtown for lunch and you can take classes at the high school,” said Julia. “You can get to know your teacher and (there are) smaller classes and all of the community service.”
Any State College student can apply to attend Delta. Applicants need a teacher recommendation, a good attendance record, and parental permission. Then the parents, students and teachers work together to craft a schedule from a wide variety of choices (for example: rather than just take English 9, students can take classes about specific writers or genres). Also, students can take classes at Penn State, on-line classes, or design an individual contract for study.
“Here,” said Masquelier, “A student has power and steers his or her own education.”
There are also many different techniques being used by creative teachers within the State College Area School District. Many teachers are using innovative ideas to inspire students and engage them in higher-level learning.
State College Area High School – Flipped Learning
One such idea is called “flipped learning.” Shai McGowen, a high school math teacher, said that although the concept has been around for years, this past summer she and several other teachers developed an interest in the idea and began reading and talking about it. They found a conference on the topic and the school paid for nine math teachers to go to Virginia for a one-day seminar.
“The administration has been very supportive,” she said. “As long as you teach the curriculum they’re not going to tell you how to do that.”
That gives teachers the freedom to test new strategies, and this one seems to be working very well. It is an idea that could only be viable in the computer age, and is a perfect way to use modern technology to meet the needs of each individual student.
This is the way it works: McGowen videotapes her lessons, which are about 20 minutes long. The students watch them at home on their computer, either through YouTube, her website, or the school’s in-house web site, and take notes. She explains a new concept, does a problem, demonstrates how she is doing it and what she is thinking, then directs the students to do one or two on their own. The next day in class the students summarize the lesson out loud and go over the problems they did, discussing how they arrived at their answers and asking questions if they are unclear about anything. Then McGowen does quick checks around the room to see who understands and who does not.
Next they proceed to do in class what they would have done for homework: practice exercises or worksheets. Students call McGowen over to help them when they need her, and then spend the rest of the period engaged in solving problems and asking questions of other students at their group tables, in addition to the teacher. Not only does this assure that the students are actively working the whole time, but, McGowen said, she is able to help almost every student every day to understand the lesson thoroughly.
But what happens when students are absent? That is the best part – they can still watch the video and do the practices, but when they return, they can ask McGowen about any problems they may be having. Also, if students do not watch the video for some reason, that is the first thing they do in class, using one of the iPods in the room, or a computer at the library.
Then, during class time teachers address individual students’ questions and needs, and constantly assess the level students are on and what information they need next.
One of McGowen’s pet peeves has always been about homework. “The kids would do it, but they would do it all wrong and I would have to spend all the class time undoing the wrong habits. Often three or four kids didn’t even do their homework because they said they didn’t understand.” This is all avoided with the flipped learning model.
Another advantage of having the video is that they can rewatch it for better understanding, go back and forth to study the parts they may not have understood the first time around, and use it for review before tests.
McGowen says, “Flipping the classroom has made me excited about teaching again after 18 years.”
She says this method is particularly beneficial for math students because math is “algorithmic and you learn it as you do it.”
When a group of four boys was asked what they thought of the method, they replied, almost in unison, “We like it better because if we don’t understand what we’re learning, we can ask her (the teacher) to help us in class.” They also added that they “help each other; we question each other.” Their enthusiasm was impressive, and made flipped learning look like a natural method for education in the 21st century.
Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School
Another 21st century option is cyber school. Many districts, including State College, have or are creating their own cyber schools, but one of the oldest ones in our state is the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. According to the website, it “is dedicated to the success of all students who have not had their needs met in a traditional educational setting. PA Cyber is dedicated to providing the services and educational programs using current technology necessary for these students to receive a high school diploma as well as to give them the opportunity to grow beyond the normal curriculum and confines of a traditional school setting.”
“No one makes the decision to leave the local school district lightly, so the people who come to a cyber school usually come for one of several reasons: dissatisfaction with their school (like a child being bullied or a parent not liking the learning environment or the educational plan), being on a career path and needing flexible time to spend on that pursuit (like a musician who may want to travel for performances), traveling with parents, having a baby, or just wanting to have control of their schedule,” said Fred Miller, communications coordinator for the National Network of Digital Schools, speaking on behalf of their client, PA Cyber.
According to Miller, with a cyber school, “You have the flexibility to learn; you take the world with you.” Also, he says it is a big time saver as “there is a lot of waste in the school building.”
Making the school even more appealing to some is that you can “customize an education better than a traditional school district” can. There are also 250 high school courses to choose from, “from Arabic to web design to engineering.”
Some classes are fully self-paced while others are “virtual classes.” This is where students are taking a class at the same time with other students. “The teacher is speaking to you live.” It is “all audio; you don’t see the kids.” They use the chat function and there is a quick response from students and teachers. Some students take just one of the options, others take a combination of both.
Each student has one person who is “continually in touch with them” called an “instructional supervisor.” That person sees the student’s grades and attendance.
At some locations they actually have classrooms where students meet on a regular basis according to need. “Some kids need more attention than others…. As traditional schools have tried to be more like us by offering cyber programs, we have expanded our in-person offerings like Clicks and Bricks, Building Blocks, and ArtReach.” They even have clubs students can join.
Another option for parents is to home school their children. Being a homeschooler may not be the lonely business people sometimes think it is. Not only are there networks of people communicating and sharing their experiences locally, state wide, and nationally, but students can use public resources and some local school resources as well. There are accreditation organizations that examine student work and offer diplomas.
According to their website: “The Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency (PHAA) is a state-wide homeschool membership organization founded by Pennsylvania Homeschoolers® in 1991 in order to provide legitimate diplomas to the homeschooling community.”
PHAA’s website says that it helps homeschoolers get scholarships to college and enhances “the reputation of homeschool graduates by collecting and publicizing statistics about its graduates.
“PHAA is just one of the diploma-granting organizations, recognized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide diplomas to graduates of Pennsylvania home education programs. These organizations give homeschoolers a recognized alternative to the GED and the correspondence school diploma. Unlike the GED, these diplomas bear no stigma; in fact PHAA’s graduates generally do better on tests than school-educated students. Unlike most correspondence school programs, PHAA’s requirements are very flexible permitting homeschoolers to complete their course work in a wide variety of ways.”
At the end of each year, a PHAA member evaluator meets with a member’s family, reviews the student’s portfolio, interviews the student, and awards credits by filling out and signing a PHAA transcript.
Erin Clark, a senior at Penn State with a double major in photojournalism and criminal justice, (and who has made Dean’s List every semester except one) and her sister were homeschooled, and she says they loved it. She says that as soon as they were old enough to understand, her mother gave them the choice to remain at home or to go to public school. They chose to stay at home. Clark said that her mother “also enjoyed the freedom homeschooling provides. We traveled a lot. We took two train trips around the outer states. We went to the Dakotas, Texas, Alaska.”
Clark also said they went to Mexico “to help with the construction and painting and other things at a children’s home. Real life situations are equally as important as the classroom.”
How did her day go? As they got a little bit older, the girls and their mother would set up a weekly schedule for what to study and when to complete their work. Then they could organize their day in any way that suited them. Clark said, “It’s so laid back: you have your weekly schedule to accomplish things. We kept planners – mom made us follow that.”
“The freedom is nice,” said Clark. “I feel like you have a more well-rounded education because they don’t force you into a classroom where everyone learns the same way, because everyone doesn’t learn the same way.” To create their curriculum her mother wrote lesson plans, made up games, used objects to teach concepts, took them into the community to gather information, and took them to curriculum fairs where they would choose their books and learning tools together.
When they entered their high school years they were members of a group called HATS (Homeschool Academic Teaching Support), a co-op where once a week they could take any of a variety of classes from certified teachers.
How about friends? Clark said people always ask her about that and that she had plenty of friends “through the neighborhood, through mom’s friends, the home schooling group. It was not an issue at all.”
What happened when she applied to go to college? “I had to take the SATs at the public high school,” and she did very well. “When I applied to college I felt like it helped me in a way. It almost added like a curiosity aspect. I feel like most educators have a respect for people who are homeschooled. Nine times out of ten people expect homeschoolers to be really smart, culturally self-aware, and generally well-rounded people.”
All the educators and students at these schools were very proud of their institutions (or non institution), but all were quick to point out that their learning style is not for everyone, and that choice is a good thing. They also admitted that sometimes students begin at their facility, then change to another school, and that that was okay because as Toci pointed out, “Every student is different.” Respecting these differences and meeting every student’s needs appears to be at the heart of the idea of alternative education. It is the way to accommodate and honor the uniqueness of all children, their learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses, abilities and challenges, and interests and opportunities in a way that acknowledges every student’s individuality and right to self-determination.



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Minneapolis MN

Thanks for helpful sharing. My boy will turn to 5 next year. So, this post is really helpful for me at this time. I am working as a web designer in Minnesota...I spend most of my time in company. So, I really don't have enough time to make a good plan for my kids.

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