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Exploration

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Sioux Central students and staff set new course with area's first charter school

f you took a boatload of elementary students and teachers and placed them on a desert island, what do you think would happen?

That might be an analogy to what is happening, right now, in Sioux Rapids as Sioux Central students and staff are embarking on a new adventure, limited only by the imagination. Sioux Central received a $400,000 grant to initiate a charter school program this fall. And, with the program at the enrollment limit of 59 students enrolled with 60 covered under the grant, the expectations are that the program will grow far beyond its current form next year.

Rick Roghair, Sioux Central elementary principal, said classes are non-graded but benchmarks are used instead. "They won't see a letter grade," Roghair said of students.

For an assessment, students must do a project and give both an oral demonstration and a written narrative of their projects. Roghair said he sees a very unique application of student knowledge. One student chose the Electoral College as a topic during the unit on elections.

Roghair said Sioux Central is the only elementary charter school in the state. In addition to their charter homeroom teachers, students are served by teachers in outside specialty areas who also use the benchmark system rather than traditional grades.

Roghair said teachers also keep a record of grades so benchmarks can be translated in case students transfer.

Troy Thams as lead teacher rotates his duties among the three classes taught by Lesa Heschke, ages 6-7; Melia Thompson, ages 8-9; and Marla Huebner, ages 10-11.

Under the charter schools program, grades are a thing of the past. Instead, assessment includes projects such as those that students did last Wednesday and Thursday at the Sioux Central media center. Students are given a problem and asked to solve it. As part of an experiment, students were led into darkened classrooms and asked to come up with solutions to provide power to the school.

Thams said the charter school concept places a huge emphasis on technology. Part of the grant money went toward buying thirty special laptop computers at $1,500 each. Even if they don't have keyboarding skills, students can "write" with a special pen and hit a button and translate what they have written into text.

Sam Stoppelmoor, a sixth-grader in Marla Huebner's class, in demonstrations last week displayed a solar energy project showing how a farm could be powered with solar.

Sam took apart a solar yardlight at home and connected it to a battery pack to show how solar could be used to power lights and equipment on the farm. Alathea Westbrook, a student in Mrs. Thompson's third-grade class, did a project that showed the parts of a wind turbine and how energy could be transferred.

Hannah Nielsen, a fifth grader of Marla Huebner's, built a model of the school and offered a cost breakdown of utility costs. Nielsen interviewed custodial staff and inspected school records and determined it cost an average of $9,918.31 a month for heating and lighting the school.

Nelson Middendorff, a sixth grader of Mrs. Huebner's, did a project on hydroelectric power. His Power Point presentation included a map of the United States showing which states had the highest usage of hydroelectric power.

Students' projects were also critiqued by a wind energy professional, Rokk Ridout, a site supervisor for GE Wind, the major contractor of the Intrepid wind farm near Schaller. Ridout gave students advice on how they could improve their projects from a practical standpoint.

Thams said students have shown remarkable progress compared to those under traditional grading systems.

"It's absolutely amazing," Thams said. Rather than traditional textbooks, students use trade books geared to their reading level.

Thams said charter staff spent the summer researching projects. "It definitely puts a lot of work on the teacher compared to the traditional school," Thams said.

He said Sioux Central is the first-ever charter school built on constructivism and inquiry learning.

All charter teachers at Sioux Central have their specialties. Thams' area is science which incorporated well into the energy unit. Marla Huebner, with the district for 20 years, specializes in social studies and history.

Lesa Heschke's specialty is early childhood and developmental education. Melia Thompson's specialty is bringing new information and technologies into teaching.

"We all utilize our backgrounds into helping out one another," Thams said.

Homeroom sessions can be very interesting. All six grades are mixed together. Last week, Thams said students ages six and seven were given the task of teaching older students. One young student remarked, "I like this because I feel grown up," Thams related.

The only questions Thams has heard about the program were how the traditional "three-Rs" were drawn into the curriculum. Thams said projects are oriented so that students naturally make use of various disciplines without realizing it.

"Students don't know that they're doing math. They don't know that they're doing science. That's the neat thing," Thams said.

Students progress more quickly in developing higher-level thinking skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, Thams said. "They're getting answers but they're doing it a different way."

It has taken a while for the entire Sioux Central School community to come around. Approval of the charter school concept was narrowly passed 3-2 by the board. However, Thams said he has heard nothing but good about the program community-wide. As one example, third-grade students are learning words their parents say they would not have learned until at least middle school or junior high.

As a result, talk around town has changed.

"They're saying they want their kids in charter school next year," Thams said.



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