Between 35 to 45 people filled the meeting room at the Yarmouth Port Fire Station a Rte. 6A on the last evening in January to learn about the Cape’s newest proposed school.
If it succeeds in its quest, the school would be the first K-5 charter school on the Cape, creating a full array of K-12 options. It would join the Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, which serves grades 6-12, and Sturgis East and Sturgis West in Hyannis, which serve grades 9-12.
Keeping it positive
The founding group avoided criticizing existing schools during the two-hour presentation and conversation. Instead, group leaders Ken and Mary Joe Keenan spoke of the need for parent and family choice and the excitement and benefits of a multi-age curricular approach.
Even when one older man asked several times “what is the problem for which this is a solution?” school supporters remained on the positive side, responding simply with a list of strengths of the proposed curricular structure including inquiry based learning, community building, and character development.
The team working to launch the new school includes Ken Keenan , who served as Horace Mann Charter School principal, and Mary Jo Keenan, who launched and taught the popular multi-age primary classroom at Hyannis East Elementary School.
Both have been through the process of launching a charter school and rolling out new approaches to education. Among those approaches is an old idea that’s new again: the multi-age classroom.
Multi-age, multi benefit
In a multi-age classroom, children are taught in groups containing different grade levels. Students can move at their own individual pace and teachers make extensive use of a technique called differentiated learning, in which the teacher helps children learn common material at a depth and breadth appropriate to each child’s current level.
In a multi-age classroom, each child has a chance to learn from others, as well as teach others. Peer mentoring forms part of every student’s experience.
“When a child is a mentor and has to teach something to a peer or to a younger child., they learn it themselves at a much deeper level,” explained Mary Jo Keenan.
In addition the philosophy is learner focused and makes heavy use of project and other experiential learning strategies. Proponents also point to the collaboration and learning community that a multi-age classroom creates and the interpersonal skills it builds.
One mother, whose oldest child attended Mary Jo Keenan’s class, called the multi-age approach “magic.”
“There is something special about it,” she told the group. “We lived it. You cannot overstate the importance of the kids to each other.” She hopes to see the charter school come to life so her younger children can have the same educational experience her oldest did.
But she’ll have to wait. Creating a charter school doesn’t happen over night; the process takes approximately 18 months from initial statement of intent to an approved and issued charter.
Steps in between include the creation of an extensive prospectus, an in-depth peer –review, and an interview with the state. During a public comment process, members of the community and other interested parties get a chance to speak up about the pros and cons of the proposed school and its approach.
If all goes perfectly, the new school would open its doors in September 2014.
Details in progress
Many details remain a work in progress, including the location of the school.
Ken Keenan joked that every time he drives by a vacant building he gives it a second look to see if it might be a suitable site. Some of the sites mentioned by name include former car dealerships near Parker’s in Yarmouth and former car dealerships in downtown Hyannis.
Classes will be grouped into K-1 classes, grades 2-3 classes, and grades 4-5 classes. The school expects to see 16 children per class, but the number of classes depends on the interest the school generates and the number of children who ultimately enroll.
The meeting on Thursday marked the beginning of a long road. Organizers expect to host many more similar conversations. They also expressed their intent to proactively reach out to minority and low income residents, with a goal of creating a diverse school on all levels.
To that end, flyers in three languages (English, Portuguese, and Spanish) have been distributed through local churches, the Child Care Network, story times at libraries, and other family and child friendly organizations that reach across all slices of the Cape.
Based on suggestions from the community, the next meeting – its date not yet confirmed – will be held at the Zion Museum in Hyannis.
In creating the school, its founders have found inspiration nearby. The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, in West Tisbury, serves as a model.
Organizers have visited and taken away lessons from the successfully Island school, which also uses a multi-age approach.
Whether the Cape’s K-5 multi-age charter school remains an idea or become a reality has yet to be seen, but based on feedback at this first meeting there appears to be enough interest to take the concept to the next level.
“It’s going to be a long-term project,” Keenan told the group. “There’s a lot to be done and we want to try to involve everyone.”