Parents hear plans, specifics of proposed charter school

Response to a call for a new charter school in Blount County has been described as strong, and a decision on whether it will move forward will come in three days.

The Blount County School Board will vote on a 450-page application for the school at its 7 p.m. Thursday meeting. More than 100 people gathered Thursday evening at Maryville Vineyard Church for a public information session to learn about Hope Academy and the charter school phenomenon in general.

Hope would be the first charter school in Tennessee in a non-urban area and has intrigued parents from across Blount County with its different approach to funding and curriculum.

Stephanie Cousins, a nurse who is married to an engineer, was liking what she heard Thursday night.

“I’m excited,” she said following the meeting, adding that she believes the charter school may “bring kids to a higher level” of learning.

The school will focus on the educational areas that Cousins and her husband, Jason, are themselves involved in career-wise -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

Cousins said she is attracted to the school’s hands-on approach. Indeed, that is part of the acronym that give the academy its name -- Hands-On Progressive Education.

The STEM focus, she said, will be “essential” in coming years.

Students, Cousins said, “have to learn it to excel or be left behind.”

From what she has heard so far, Cousins says she is inclined at this point to try to get her daughter -- who is now 4 and will start kindergarten in 2012 -- into the charter school.

Hope will be a K-5 school in its first year, if approved by the Blount board, and will basically add a grade a year through 2017, when it will top out with an 8th grade, with tentative plans to continue through 12th. The initial pupil count will be 180 and will rise to 320 by 2017, according to a visual presentation by Pat Bradley, executive director of the academy, at Thursday’s meeting.

Hope Academy, if approved, will be Tennessee’s 46th charter school and the first established outside an urban setting.

It is funded by the local education association, the Blount school board, transferring its per-pupil appropriation for the students to Hope. In addition, funds will be raised through philanthropy and by the school’s supporting organization, Innovative Education Partnership Inc.

Among those addressing the meeting Thursday night was Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, who told the crowd of more than 100 that charter schools can “do all kinds of things” that traditional public schools cannot, such as having classes on Saturday or as late as 5 in the afternoon.

But they also face the same accountability standards that all public school in Tennessee face. Failure to achieve those goals two years in a row can lead to the school being closed, he said.

“We are not trying to tell the district how to do it,” he said, “we’re not trying to take over.”

But the potential advantage of charter schools is that they are not as likely to promote and graduate students who have not achieved learning skills commensurate with their grade level.

Bradley, who will serve as the academy’s principal, said the school will work on a schedule of nine weeks in the classroom with three weeks between terms, five weeks in the summer.

The goal, she said, will be to integrate the STEM curriculum with the standard subjects of reading, music arts and social studies.

If the Blount County School Board denies the application, Hope Academy founding team has 15 days to make corrections and resubmit. If denied again, the founders have another 10 days to appeal to the state education board, who then have 60 days to make a final decision.

Once the state approves or rejects the application, the decision is final. If approved, the local education authority must accept the charter school.

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