Posted on the walls above the curving front desk and tall tabletops displaying dioramas are Pearl S. Buck and Albert Einstein quotes. “All things are possible until they are proved impossible and even the impossible may only be so, as of now,” Buck reminds students and staff. If ever there was a school to make the impossible possible it would be the State College of Florida Collegiate School (SCFCS) in Bradenton, FL.
Just finishing up its first full school year, this unique 6-12 public charter school was nothing more than an idea in the spring of 2010. The learning model was inspired by a successful school in Sweden, Kunskapsskolan, where students are made more responsible for their education. “The parents had a lot of faith in this idea,” SCFCS Head of School Kelly Monod said admiringly when asked about the school’s at-capacity enrollment. Although the first year was comprised of 6th and 7th Grade students only, the next school year will see the addition of 8th Grade with expansion in the following years. With classes full and students already wait-listed for the 2011-2012 school year, it is easy to see how SCFCS will quickly evolve and become one of, if not the most sought after school choice for students in Southwest Florida.
When students graduate from SCFCS, not only will they graduate with a high school diploma, they will also have an Associate in Arts Degree from SCF. If that is not incentive enough for parents to want their child to attend, Florida Gulf Coast University has partnered with the charter school to grant 70 additional credit hours to each graduating senior, which guarantees a full Bachelor’s Degree at no cost to the family. With a free college education blazing in the horizon, families are flocking for the 66 class seats per grade.
“It’s not a learning model for everyone, though,” Monod admits. “Students have to be focused.” Surprisingly, despite the freedom given to sit anywhere and listen to iPods while surfing the web for information on their iPads, the students seemed intensely focused. Not only were they actively engaged in their learning, but there was an underlying sense of focus and direction throughout the school.
SCFCS’ partnership with Apple’s Education Technology has enabled the school to offer students the latest in hardware and software. From the iPads at each student’s side, to the MacBooks that provide additional support, there is no shortage of technology in this environment. By letting students learn in a way that works for them with current technology at their side, they seem to become more invested in their studies. A traditional school setting SCFCS is not.
“What about students with IEPs and disabilities?,” I wondered. As a public charter school, SCFCS is required by law to accept students who need additional help should they apply and be chosen in the lottery. Monod explained that while some have not stayed, those who have stayed have learned to make the environment work for them. Whether it is rearranging the furniture to create a quiet study area for themselves or listening to their iPods, they have figured out ways to take control of their learning. “The goal,” Monod said, “is guiding the student to be student led in their education.”
What exactly does student led education look like? It is a scary thought for those stuck on traditional schooling and even scarier for those whose focus is on testing and conformity. At SCFCS, student-led learning comes in the form of three middle school boys working excitedly on a project of their interest and design in a glass “Think Tank” room in one of the classroom buildings. It is the child developing a project on a topic that interests him instead of one that has just been chosen from a lesson book.
Make no mistake, the students are SCFCS are accountable and overseen. Each student meets with an instructor, called a coach, daily to be accountable for his progress on projects and assignments. While there is great freedom, there is also great accountability. In fact, in their first FCAT tests, SCFCS students substantially outperformed both the state and Manatee district in all levels, and Monod proudly explains that students stepped up to do their best. “We told them what’s at stake and that they represent not only a school, but the college. We strive to instill a going-to-college mindset and they did great.”
The first-year test results are especially impressive, Monod points out, when you consider that 68 percent of the students are from first-generation families, meaning their parents do not have bachelor degrees; 38 percent receive free or reduced lunch, and 33 percent represent minority populations.When asked what has surprised her the most about this school year, Monod laughs. “How much we’ve actually done! We’ve had poetry slams, movie nights, the students are doing a play in the college’s auditorium, and we have a yearbook. We have also put together a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) night, where every teacher incorporated science into their curriculum at the moment. The result was the civics class modeling Ben Franklin’s inventions and the social studies class building an aqueduct, as well as student presentations and demonstrations. It’s amazing how much we’ve done considering this was all just an idea at this time last year.”
The evidence of the school’s success in its first year is apparent no matter where you look. Engaged students, smiling faces, eager learners and an atmosphere that makes you want to stay for awhile and learn, despite it being the first year SCFCS has managed to quickly take the lead in an amazing education model. “Come back and watch us grow,” Monod encouraged. “This is only the beginning.”
For more information, including a video and photos of the innovative school, visit SCFCS.org
Special thanks to the students, staff, and Kelly Monod, Head of School, for graciously taking time to share their school.