Those of you who have been following this blog this year know that I have been spearheading an effort to start a new project-based charter school in Minnesota. Wasioja Valley School would be different than most charter schools. It would be a project-based charter school in the Edvisions model that would exist virtually as one school spread throughout many other schools. It would run against conventions in the charter movement in that it would exist not only to support students who are not well served by traditional school systems but also help traditional schools attract and retain students as well as allow school districts the ability to say that they offer a true alternative learning environment within their school available to all students. Students attending the school would have face to face interaction with a site adviser but have access to teachers in all core content areas through a network of participating schools.
I spent the better part of my free time this spring researching and drafting the grant application for this school. We decided to try to make a go of it with the three rural schools in our consortium (the three schools that share ITV courses). A couple of weeks ago I presented the idea formally to a joint meeting of all three school boards. The meeting went well. There was a lot of productive dialog about the specifics of the program, the value of project-based learning, how to address the needs of alternative learning styles, how to address the needs of gifted and tallented students and those who are strugling, and the effect disruptive innovation in education is likely to have on our three schools in the coming years as other options become more prevalent. The three boards decided to vote on whether or not to support our technology consortium sponsoring this school at their next board meetings. If they all voted for it we would submit the application July 7th to the Minnesota Department of Education. If they voted no we would cease pursuit of this idea. Throughout this process we used a Ning site to coordinate and plan. The following is my latest post on that site regarding the results of each board decision:
Wasioja Valley School as is currently laid out in the CSP grant application is a no go. Last week Wayne Hahn brought a motion at the Goodhue School Board meeting to support WETC chartering this school and no one seconded the motion so it was dead before it could be voted on. Both Z-M and K-W school boards decided not to vote on it since it did not pass at Goodhue.
However, there appears to be a fair amount of support from individuals on each board for something like this. Since none of the school boards voted on the measure it is difficult to gauge exactly how much support there is. I am going to take this lack of action to mean that no one is saying no just yet but everyone needs more time to explore this issue.
When I set out this fall with this idea my goal was to bring awareness to our schools of multiple issues I had not seen directly addressed. First, I do not see any school in the WETC consortium doing project-based learning in a manner that is optimally effective even though the research overwhelmingly shows it's value for all learners (especially gifted and talented students and those who are "at risk"). Second, the issue of disruptive innovation in education is a 600lb gorilla that poses serious concerns for all schools but especially small schools. In addressing this issue I believe we need to create options for our students in our schools that will attract and retain them when posed with the options of open enrollment, PSEO, online schools, etc. We don't want a migration of students another educational options to diminish the quality of education we can provide for those who remain. Such a scenario will only prompt more families to seek alternative education options including homeschooling or any of those options I mentioned above. I feel I met this goal even though no action has yet been taken on it. The seed has been planted.
So, where do we go from here? There are a few options. One option that is available that I don't think leaves schools with long-term stability facing the coming effects of disruptive innovations on the horizon is to do nothing and default back to the status quo. The end effect of this is likely consolidation and school closures within the next 10-15 years. That option is not attractive to families in the district with young children who will likely have students in school when this happens or for early or mid-career teachers.
Another option is to polish this application and try again next year. This may work but unless the Goodhue school board shifts it's current stance it is not likely to go.
A third option is to find an independent sponsor from the approved sponsor list the state provides and open the school without WETC sponsorship in rental property within walking distance of schools. The school would be able to operate close to how it is intended, it would have a more independent feel, but forcing district hands is not a good policy when this initiative is also supposed to help them. For this measure to work I believe it has to be done as a cooperative endeavor with local school districts. My fear for the school districts is if they do not do this themselves someone else will.
The option I am leaning towards right now is to broaden our scope. Many people at the WETC information meeting voiced that they see value in and support this style of pedagogy but were concerned the risk was too high to implement it as a full fourth secondary school among our three districts. If we broaden our scope beyond the WETC schools we could offer this option through WETC for a smaller number of students at each building and create a larger network of licensed teachers. This option is actually closer to what I initially envisioned. Basically, we would rewrite the CSP grant to include schools across the state who would be interested in joining us in this. Perhaps we could get one school in each ITV network or consortium to host one or two classrooms and offer PBL style dual enrollment to other schools in their consortiums. This option could also include larger urban schools as well. In the long run this option is also poised to have the greatest impact on education state-wide. I think we stand a better chance of finding enough schools to partner with in this if we look to all the ISDs in the state than limiting it to our three districts.
Whichever option we go with we are now looking at going through this process again next year and shooting for July of 2010 as a new date for grant submission. That would push the opening date to at least the fall of 2011.
What are your thoughts?