Community Learns About Polaris Charter School

LAPS Teachers Scott Johnson, center, and Amy Bartlett-Gaunt, right, discuss the Polaris Charter School with community members Saturday at a local residence. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com 
 
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
kirsten@ladailypost.com
 
Retired LAPS teacher Sharon Allen opened her home Saturday afternoon to the community and committee members developing the Polaris Charter School.
 
The purpose of the informal meeting was to help attendees better understand the proposed charter school and answer their questions.
 
Committee members who attended the meeting were LAPS teachers Scott Johnson and Amy Bartlett-Gaunt.
 
According to New Mexico’s 1993 Charter Schools Act one of the primary reasons for authorizing charters is “to enable individual schools to structure their educational curriculum to encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods that are based on reliable research and effective practices or have been replicated successfully in schools with diverse characteristics.” Essentially charters were established to be incubators of innovation that contribute to improving educational outcomes for all children.
 
Similar to a conventional public school, charter schools get per student state funding, are evaluated by the state and are required to take state mandated testing.
 
The difference between a charter school and a public school is in the approach to meeting state standards.
 
Polaris Charter School will be a sixth through eighth grade middle school, which will adopt a place-based learning model that leverages the culture, history, economics and landscape of northern New Mexico as a framework for learning. Students will engage in inquiry-based, interdisciplinary learning connected to the real world.They will tackle purposeful projects that positively impact their community and promote a broader understanding of the world.
 
Through projects and design thinking strategies they will learn to embrace challenges, explore new strategies, and innovate solutions. As a result students will gain creative confidence and become more self-directed as they acquire the skills and deeper learning competencies needed in the 21st century.
 
This might take the form of a project about water rights. Students would learn about the laws regulating the distribution of water through acequias, identify an issue, go into the field to collect data and then use math to understand their data. The students would then communicate what they learned perhaps through a newspaper story, art project or public service announcement. This is placed-based is education. Students tackle local issues and learn how to impact the world.
 
Currently, the Polaris Team is drafting their responses to the 50 questions on the state application to establish a charter school. The application is due June 1. Prior to this, in December, the Polaris Team submitted to the New Mexico Public Education Department and Los Alamos School District a Notice of Intent, which included a summary of the Polaris’s proposed model and innovations.
 
During the meeting Saturday, Johnson and Bartlett-Gaunt were asked a range of questions from what would a typical day’s schedule be to how would funding for the school work.
 
While nothing is certain yet, Johnson said a typical day’s schedule is envisioned as being divided into longer blocks of time with core instruction in the morning and studio electives in the afternoon. Studio electives would be a flexible time set aside for students to work on projects that are relevant to the community and of interest to the student, take electives, or go on field excursions with teachers.  Additionally there would be regularly scheduled advisory times during which teachers meet with their crew of students and intentionally foster a sense of community and trust, as well as, support the social-emotional well-being and academic progress of each student.
 
As far as funding, it isn’t known at this time exactly how much income the school would receive.  The amount of state and federal money varies depending on such things as the staffing, number of students and the services provided to students. Johnson emphasized regardless of where students attend school educational money is assigned on a per student basis and it goes where they go to school.
 
Another attendee asked about the transition back into Los Alamos High School when students reach ninth grade.
 
Bartlett-Gaunt said it is discovered when charter school students transition back into district schools, they are super prepared, particularly for working in groups. She said at the charter school students would learn not only learn core subject material but also life skills through projects. The hope is, Bartlett-Gaunt said, that once the kids reach ninth grade they have confidence and self assurance.
 
They were also asked about the school’s name, Polaris. Bartlett-Gaunt said it’s the name of the North Star. The star is utilized for navigation and finding direction; similar to the school, which would strive to help students navigate through their education and give them direction in life.
 
In speaking to the Los Alamos Daily Post, Johnson and Bartlett-Gaunt agreed a charter school would offer another option for education to students and their parents.
 
“I’ve always understood that there are a lot of options for students through sixth grade,” Johnson said.
 
He pointed out there are a number of Montessori schools and preschools but after sixth grade Johnson said it seems the only current options are home school or leaving Los Alamos.

“I think we do really well for many students but we want to reach even more,” Bartlett-Gaunt said.

A few of the parents who attended the meeting said they also were attracted to having more options for their children.
 
“I’m interested in the alternative learning program,” one parent said.
 
Another said Allen taught her daughter and “with (Allen’s) interest and excitement in (the charter school) I wanted to know more.” One parent said every child is different and not all fit a particular mold. A charter school might offer a different type of mold.
 
For more information about Polaris, the application timeline and the Polaris News Bulletin sign-up visit www.PolarisSchool.net
 
If interested in hosting a Polaris Conversation Circle or for more information, contact Branden Willman-Kozimor bewk@me.com
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