MOT Charter School plans innovative high schoolJan 08, 2015 09:26PM ● By Kerigan Butt
Courtesy photo A rendering of the lobby near the entrance of the high school that is being planned.
By Steven Hoffman
MOT Charter School eighth-grader Bridget Andrews never imagined herself going to another school so she was elated to learn that she and a majority of her other classmates will be able to continue their education at MOT Charter as the public school adds a ninth grade for the 2014-2015 school year.
“I love MOT Charter,” said Andrews, who will begin focusing on vocal training or theater in the fall. “These guys are like my family so it's pretty cool to be able to stay with them.”
MOT Charter officials are planning the construction of a new 80,000-square-foot high school with the groundbreaking possibly taking place later this year. A rigorous academic program for the new high school is also being developed.
Planning a new high school may be a formidable challenge, but it was one that MOT Charter officials like Elaine Elston have welcomed.
“We don't want to be just another high school,” explained Elston, the MOT Charter's senior high school administrator. “We want to be something different—we want to be a school that is more challenging and student-driven so that it truly prepares our students for college.”
The MOT Charter High School will be comprised of two distinct academies, one that focuses on science and technology and another that concentrates on the arts. While there are many secondary-school alternatives in Delaware, there aren't any other high schools with a dual focus on the arts and science and technology. It will be a unique and creative learning environment for students.
“There are plenty of good high schools in the area, but there is just an incredible need for this kind of high school,” Elston explained. “I think the two-academy concept fills a niche and will appeal to students throughout New Castle County.
Like Andrews, Mia Kelly is a current eighth-grader who plans to continue her education in the new high school. She also plans to be a vocal major so the arts academy appeals to her. She said that she and her family weighed the pros and cons of all the high schools in the area before deciding on MOT Charter's new high school.
“This was the high school with the most pros,” Kelly said. “I was also excited that I could stay with my friends.”
Jen Taylor is a seventh grade language arts teacher at MOT Charter, as well as a vice president on the school's board of directors. She said that teachers have always played an important role in shaping the school's curriculum, and creativity is always encouraged.
“Traditional doesn't work for charter schools,” explained Taylor, who was involved in the early efforts to open the MOT Charter School. “The fact that we are smaller allows for more creativity.”
It was not as difficult as one might think for MOT Charter officials to decide to narrow the focus to science and technology and the arts.
“We already have a strong focus on the middle school STEM program,” Elston explained. “And we've had so much success with that program.”
STEM education will be even more important to high-schoolers. Elston noted that the careers that the STEM program prepares students for are very much in demand right now. While some fields of study have many more applicants than jobs available, there might be one applicant for every two or three jobs that are available in STEM-related fields.
When the decision was made to have a science and technology academy, Elston began reaching out to community to find current or retired engineers in the area who would be willing to serve as mentors to students. Nearly two dozen engineering mentors have already agreed to work with students. MOT Charter is also making connections with professionals from the University of Delaware's mechanical engineering program. Elston said that introducing students to professionals in engineering and other fields will be very beneficial for them as they progress through high school, which is why she doesn't want the students to have to wait until the junior or senior years to begin their apprenticeships. The earlier the training begins, the more prepared students will be for college.
“All of this,” explained Taylor, “is being done under the assumption that the students are going to be going to a rigorous four-year college.”
Because of the high school's advanced science and technology offerings, ninth-graders will be able to earn up to six college credits during their first year in high school.
“I don't believe that's being done anywhere else in the state,” Elston explained.
Taylor’s daughter, Carson, is one of the 56 current eighth-graders who have already made plans to continue their education at MOT Charter. She is going to be enrolling in the science and technology academy and wants to study biotechnology.
When she embarks on a career, she wants to select a field where she can use her knowledge to help others. The new high school will give her a strong foundation.
“The academies are going to be really good,” Carson said. “I think it’s really exciting. There’s definitely pressure to get good grades because that’s going to reflect on the entire school.”
Deciding on an arts component for the new high school was not difficult, either.
“The arts piece came about because we had so many kids who wanted to move on to art schools and there are so few of those in the area,” Taylor explained.
Even during difficult budget years, when other schools were chopping arts, music, or foreign language programs, MOT Charter officials made certain to always offer students those opportunities.
“The arts are core to our mission,” Taylor explained. “We believe in well-rounded children.”
The focus on well-rounded children was factored into the design for the new $10 million high school that is planned on Cedar Lane Road.
The science and technology academy and the arts academy will mirror each other, with the classroom and lab spaces in each designed for the specific classroom activities that the students will be involved in. There will be student spaces outside each classroom where students can gather in small groups to complete assignments. The arts academy will have a dance studio, a stage, a black box theater, and rooms dedicated for art classes and music lessons. On the science and technology side, there will be fully equipped labs, including a large STEM lab and a computer lab.
At the school, science and technology students and art students will take core classes with each other. Students in each grade will eat lunch together so that the two academies don't become two separate schools.
Officials hope that a groundbreaking can take place sometime this spring, and that construction on the state-of-the-art building will be completed in time for the 2015-2016 school year, the same year that the tenth grade will be added to the school. When classes begin this fall, ninth-graders will be attending school in a six-room modular building that will be set up on MOT Charter's existing campus on Levels Road. The ninth-graders will begin the school day at 7:30 a.m., an hour earlier than the rest of the MOT Charter students so that they can utilize common areas like the science lab, the music rooms, the gym, and the library.
While each class in the K-8 building has approximately 75 students, the new high school will have about 190 students at each grade level, so when the current eighth-graders are seniors there will be approximately 760 students in the building. That will still allow MOT Charter to offer a small-school education to students.
MOT Charter officials knew that the new high school had to be large enough to accommodate the number of students that would be necessary to offer high-end science and technology classes that they wanted to offer, but they also didn't want it to be too large. MOT Charter students have come to expect and enjoy the family atmosphere at the school.
Explained Taylor, “We wanted to offer the program that we wanted to offer, but we also wanted to be a small school with a small-school feel. We’ve always been about the child as an individual learner. We are known for our sense of community. The challenge is, how are we going to give the kids the best experiences that we can in one building?”
The process is well underway to populate the ninth grade. The school has already received over 250 applications from students seeking to join one of the two academies, many of whom currently attend other schools. As a publicly funded school, the charter school cannot select the students it enrolls so a lottery system is being utilized to determine which students will be admitted, with preference given to the children of faculty members, siblings of existing students, and residents who live in the immediate Middletown, Odessa, or Townsend area.
While they expect to have a waiting list for the high school, MOT Charter officials encouraged parents to complete applications for their children for fall 2014.
Elston emphasized that the high school, like the K-8 building, is designed for families that want to be very involved in education. Parental involvement has always been a key component of the school’s success, and that will continue with the addition of a high school.
In anticipation of the opening of the new high school, MOT Charter officials undertook an exhaustive search for the right educators to teach in the innovative new school. Most of the teachers for the ninth grade core subject areas have already been hired after a purposeful search process to find educators who have a firm grasp of the content, but also can demonstrate their ability to collaborate.
“In this school,” Taylor said, “a math teacher can’t go into the math room and close the door.”
The teaching candidates were sometimes interviewed together and asked to work with each other on a lesson so that MOT Charter officials could see how well they could collaborate.
It was often very evident that some of the teachers were ill-equipped for collaboration, while others seized the opportunity.
“The teachers we have brought on board have a passion and an eagerness for creativity,” Elston explained.
Taylor said that the school brought in educators who will help students develop the ability to think critically. For example, a science class lesson about Charles Darwin and evolution might lead to a discussion about the modern-day ethical dilemma surrounding cloning. Should geneticists be pursuing the knowledge necessary to clone a certain species. If so, which species should be cloned? Who should and shouldn’t be cloning? When and where should it be done? At MOT Charter, teachers will be working collaboratively to teach across the curriculum.
“No subject,” said Elston, “is an island.”
There’s more to a high school than just academics. As new high schoolers, extra-curricular activities will be important for members of the freshman class. MOT Charter officials are planning to offer a variety of high-participation sports like soccer, basketball, or volleyball—these are sports that are already offered at the middle school, too. There won’t be a football team, and that’ unlikely to change any time soon. Football is an important part of the high school experience for some students, and there are schools in the area that will provide that experience. MOT Charter plans to focus on what it does best.
While MOT officials have done everything possible to plan the best high school that they could, ultimately it will be Bridget Andrews, Carson Taylor, Mia Kelly and students like them who will make the school what it will be.
Said Jen Taylor, “For me, as an educator, the coolest thing is that it’s a chance for these kids to build a high school that will fit them best.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]