Rock Hill might get a second charter school

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMay 8, 2013 

Pastor Brian Keith’s idea for a second charter school in Rock Hill began in talks with parents who wanted to see a different kind of education.

So alongside six educators, parents and businessmen, Keith, pastor of Faith Assembly of God church off S.C. 161, decided to open a charter school he hopes will put a tablet device in the hands of each student and give children the chance to solve real-world problems.

Named after the city’s sprawling development at the Catawba River, the Riverwalk Academy will incorporate project-based learning (PBL), an education theory that blends technology and learning with collaboration and problem-solving.

If approved by the state, Riverwalk Academy will be Rock Hill’s second charter school. York Preparatory Academy opened in 2010.

Students will gather around tables, with iPads and laptops in hand, and work on projects together to find solutions to problems teachers present, said Keith, committee chairman.

“The teacher isn’t so much (of) a lecturer ... but the teacher is more of a facilitator,” he said. “It’s preparing them for a real-life work environment.”

The school will give opportunity to “lower socioeconomic” students, Keith said. Funded by the state and possibly federal grants, there will be no tuition costs to parents.

The committee filed its application with the state public charter school district last week, said Traci Bryant-Riches, director of school development with the state’s public charter school district.

The proposal still has to meet approval from the state charter school advisory committee. If the panel signs off on the paperwork, a sponsoring board will next approve or disapprove the proposal during a public meeting. If approved, the school can prepare to open the following year.

The state charter school district has received 17 applications from proposed charter schools this year, Bryant-Riches said. Riverwalk Academy is the only proposal to come from York County.

Keith hopes the school opens in time for the fall 2014 school year to welcome at least 300 students, and roughly 13 teachers and five staff members. The school will initially enroll students in kindergarten through fifth grade before expanding to middle school and high school grades.

Plans call for the school to be housed in a brick and mortar building but organizers are still working to find a location, Keith said. The Riverwalk development, off U.S. 21 (North Cherry Road), would “be ideal,” he said.

The curriculum will include the basics – “reading, writing and arithmetic” – and the sciences, Keith said. As students move up the ranks, they’ll be introduced to a more project-based learning classroom structure.

Studies have shown that PBL is more effective in long-term retention, the ability of students to learn a subject and understand it months later without just regurgitating it for a test, said Dr. Johannes Strobel, an associate professor of engineering education and learning design and technology at Purdue University in Indiana.

In 2009, Strobel and another professor published a study gauging PBL’s effectiveness in the classroom. Their research found that performance indicators and student and teacher satisfaction were higher.

PBL, they say, was less effective in short-term knowledge needed for exams or standardized tests, Strobel said.

“I always ask students what do you want, a pilot who knows how to fly a plane or a pilot who can perform well on a test?” Strobel said.

Critics have said PBL’s lack of guidance hinders student learning, but Strobel said it gives students “21st century skills” quicker than traditional classroom instruction, based on giving students years’ worth of information before they actually apply it.

“It starts with a problem,” he said. “It’s about bringing the application right away” and blends disciplines to solve an issue, such as why a pond is experiencing algae growth or how to treat a patient with a medical problem.

Riverwalk Academy’s class sizes will be small, Keith said, with a 23-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. The school will be able to enroll students from anywhere in the state, Keith said, though students will likely come from homes within practical driving distance.

The committee took cues from Bracy Wilson, CEO of Help Charters, a charter education consulting firm in Texas, when starting the application process.

“We’re along for the ride and giving our best advice,” including best practices for charter schools and having plans for worst-case scenarios and finances, Wilson said.

Wilson said the committee already has the names and addresses for 240 parents who, “if the school were open today,” would enroll their children.

One of those parents is David Hensley, who plans to enroll his 4-year-old at the school “straight out of the gate.”

For Hensley, whose older son attends Castle Heights Middle School, it's all about options.

Charter schools, he said, make for a good “in between” public schools and expensive private schools.

More than 50 charter schools have opened in the state since 2008. Seventeen are part of the state charter school district, , said Wayne Brazell, the district’s superintendent.

Of the district’s nearly 12,000 charter school students, about 8,000 are virtual students who take classes online, Brazell said.

“It’s preparing them for where we are right now and where we’re headed,” said Keith, who notes that he isn’t critical of Rock Hill schools.

“It’s not a competition with anybody,” Keith said. “It’s more of what can we do to provide a place for children to be the most successful that they possibly can be in their lives.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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