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Posted On: 2017-05-09 04:00 PM
By Amy Rolph, for Edkey Inc.
When Sequoia Village School opened in 1998, it had 146 students and an ambitious goal.
"We had a philosophy of meeting a child where they were academically, socially and emotionally," said principal Mindy Savoia.
Almost two decades later, the kindergarten through 12th grade charter school in Show Low, Arizona, has grown to nearly 400 students, still small enough to remain true to that original mission of offering personalized attention to every student.
That's why kindergarteners and first graders now work collaboratively in small groups, so teachers can meet their individual needs. Students in elementary school and junior high study reading and math in small groups according to their ability, not their grade levels. And high schoolers who are ready for advanced work are driven by van to a nearby community college to take classes -- at no cost to the students, as long as they get a C in the courses.
"Our goal is to meet them where they are," said high school teacher David Hamblin. "That's one of the things we do best."
Savoia said if she could change one thing about education in America, she'd make it possible for each child to be assessed individually. "I'd say really try to figure out where to meet that young person, where to meet that student. Some schools may feel that's a bigger task than it really is," Savoia said.
Smaller class sizes can help with creating an individualized educational experience -- but it's only one part of the equation, said Savoia. Class sizes at Sequoia Village tend to average around 30 students for grades K-8, but students are usually divided into smaller groups according to their needs.
"Parents repeatedly tell us that Sequoia is a place where their child is known," said Savoia. "They feel welcome to come into the classrooms. They often tell me that you have such small classrooms. I say they're not that small, but with small groupings it feels like we have very small classrooms."
The Sequoia Village charter school is one of 15 Sequoia Schools run by the Arizona-based non-profit Edkey. Sequoia Village is funded by tax dollars -- meaning families don't pay tuition. But while most traditional public schools have a standard set of curriculum to teach, Sequoia Village's small size allows teachers more creativity when in responding to students' needs.
"We know the curriculum, and we know what needs to be taken care of," said junior high teacher Larry Nicholls. "Here we are allowed some freedom."
Hamblin said that his honors high school students have the option of adopting a cross-curricular, project-based approach to learning or a more traditional approach to honors work. And high schoolers aren't the only ones whose education is grounded in real-world problem solving and projects; the school is about to launch a play-based kindergarten experience that is grounded in projects and emphasizes communication.
"We're very nimble," said Hamblin. "That's one of the beauties of the charter school system. We can be more responsive to the needs of our students. We're not stuck in a frozen curriculum."
Placing elementary school, middle school, and high school students in the same building has an upside, too. A group of junior high students recently volunteered to mentor elementary students, for starters. And students are able to study at a level that fits them -- even if that means having a seventh grader taking high school math.
But meeting the needs of students isn't always academic.
Junior high and high school teacher Kim Robinson said working in a small school encourages teachers to connect with all of the institution's students, not just the ones in their individual classrooms. And as a result, teachers often understand exactly what their students -- and often their families -- are struggling with. Some students work minimum-wage jobs in addition to going to school, and Robinson said teachers have even bought groceries for students' families before.
And, she elaborated, knowing that some students haven't traveled beyond eastern Arizona makes it even more important that they visit universities and prepare for their futures.
"We're in a very high poverty area, and we're showing our kids that there's nothing that's going to hold you back," Robinson said. "We're going to help you find your way, and we're going to help you fly."
Learn more about how your child can thrive in a charter school setting on the Sequoia Village School website.
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