Public charter school blazes educational trail with on-site/online classes 

The New School

Robert Cook's high school will serve students in need of an alternative to the traditional classroom

Paul Bowers

Robert Cook's high school will serve students in need of an alternative to the traditional classroom

The future home of Fairfield Charter High School doesn't look much like a school. With 5,000 square feet of space on the second floor of a West Ashley business center, the school's neighbors will include doctors' offices and nonprofits.

"We want it to feel like you're going to school at a tech startup," says Robert Cook, principal of the new public school opening in the fall. Fairfield will have one other major difference from traditional public schools: Half of the school day will take place online.

Virtual schools have existed since the 1990s, but as a blended school, Fairfield Charter High will require students to attend the physical campus for English and math classes three hours a day (either in the morning or afternoon), and the rest of their classes will be conducted via Florida Virtual School, a K-12 program founded in 1997.

"We're a school that might be attractive to kids who aren't successful in a regular school," Cook says. "It might be a big school, big classes, and they're kind of overwhelmed or feel like a number."

Cook has a wide-ranging background in Charleston County schools, having served in administrative positions at Stall High School, West Ashley High School, Charleston County School of the Arts, and Alice Birney Middle School. He says he's encountered students through the years who could use an alternative to the traditional school model. Students who have to help raise their siblings or work to support their families, for instance, might benefit from a more flexible school schedule. And since classwork is self-paced, students who have fallen behind academically will have the chance to catch up.

Currently, Charleston County high school students who fall behind on credit hours can choose to attend Septima P. Clark Academy, a unique program on James Island that offers small class sizes and a strict, no-frills environment. Clark Academy was started in 1990 as a partnership between the school district and the dropout prevention program Communities in Schools, and it offers students a chance to graduate on time at their original high schools.

Since Fairfield gets its charter from the S.C. Public Charter School District, enrollment is open to all South Carolina residents, and tuition is free. Cook says he won't know how much demand there is for seats at his school until parents and students start attending open houses and filling out applications, but he will cap attendance at 250 students for the first year. If more than 250 students apply, seats will be awarded by lottery.

As a statewide charter, Fairfield will not receive funding from the Charleston County School District, and its costs will likely be lower than at other area schools. For example, all math classes will be taught together in the same room, with a single teacher and an assistant traveling around to "pods" of students to address algebra, geometry, and other subjects. Science labs will be conducted at home with household supplies like ammonia and vinegar. There will be no cafeteria and no school bus transportation, although Cook is talking with CARTA about getting bus passes for students. And while Fairfield won't offer many extracurricular activities, students will be able to participate in sports and other activities at the public school in their home attendance zone.

Online schools get a bad rap, and not without reason. A 2011 report by EdNews Colorado, for instance, showed that students in the state's full-time online schools "have typically lagged their peers on virtually every academic indicator." And the high school portion of the 3,500-student South Carolina Virtual Charter School, an online program also under the S.C. Public Charter School District, has been rated At-Risk by the state Department of Education for its first two years based on poor standardized test scores.

Clay Eaton, spokesman for the S.C. Public Charter School District, says Fairfield's blended school model could help overcome some of the problems of strictly online schools. He notes that algebra, for instance, is tough to grasp in the first place, but it's especially hard to learn from online videos without the help of an in-person teacher. "I think they'll be able to introduce a lot of on-the-ground support for the students," Eaton says.

Lynn Spampinato is director of leadership and professional development at Catapult Learning, the New Jersey-based company that is managing Fairfield's instructional design, hiring, and registration. She has seen similar blended schools popping up in New Jersey and Oklahoma, and she says the model represents "the best of both worlds."

"Blended education is really sort of the new frontier," Spampinato says.


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