Parents at meeting favor charter school for Maple Grove

Almost 80 people attended a meeting last Thursday evening to learn how their children’s education would be changed if the Merrill Area Public Schools enters into a charter with Marathon Schools for Maple Grove under a shared operating agreement.

Marathon Schools is in the planning year of a state grant to charter its middle school using the Expeditionary Learning mode, although the method of teaching has already been introduced at the school. Maple Grove would have the same model of education, which is among those the Department of Public Instruction recognizes as an innovative model whose results can be backed up with data.

The idea of the shared operating agreement to extend EL to grades K-5 at Maple Grove came as MAPS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder and Marathon Administrator Rick Parks were looking at the financial implications for both districts if the Hamburg school was detached from MAPS and incorporated into the Marathon district. In the end, the study showed the proposition to be a lose/lose for both districts as MAPS would lose state aid and see its tax base reduced while the residents of Hamburg would see their taxes increase while the influx of students would actually end up costing Marathon state aid.

But when the two administrators started looking at how sharing costs and staffing would affect the bottom line of both districts, the idea proved to be a win/win. Under the rough outline of how the school would run under the agreement, the school would remain in MAPS, but be staffed by teachers from Marathon who have already been trained in the EL model. MAPS would then reimburse Marathon a set amount to cover staffing and other direct costs.

Parks said that while some Maple Grove students may decide to open enroll into his district for Middle School under the model, he also can see some students from his district open enroll into the school because it is closer than Marathon’s elementary school.

Parks said that the teachers, students and parents have embraced the EL model since it first was looked at a couple years ago. The model uses a cross-disciplinary approach to teach a shared subject, which includes “expeditions” that take the students into the real world. Part of each “expedition” includes a component where the students give back to the community. In addition, EL provides students a chance to work in groups doing their research, which adds the critical thinking and problem solving skills that they will need as adults to compete in the 21st Century job market.

Marathon Middle School Language Arts Teacher Mia Chmiel said she has seen an improvement in the skills of her students already, something that is common in EL schools. She said since the approach fosters a great deal of collaboration with other teachers in the design of each expedition, how their subjects will be incorporated, etc., she feels students are better engaged in their learning.

“It’s the best professional development I have ever had,” said Chmeil, who has been teaching for 10 years.

Since the charter school would be run by a governing board, parents and teachers would have more autonomy from the rest of MAPS. MMS has gone to a trimester system to make the running of the three annual expeditions easier, a decision the governing board, not their school board, made.

Another advantage to making Maple Grove a charter school is it may draw open enrolled students from Athens, Wausau and other surrounding districts. The projected enrollment for the 2011-12 school year is 97 students and the building could comfortably accommodate about 140 students. If the demand for open enrollment exceeds the available slots, a lottery would be held to determine who gets the slots. Students who are already going to Maple Grove would have first priority, with Marathon receiving a number of reserved slots, before the lottery process begins, however. Two parents of currently enrolled Athens students were at the meeting and indicated they would seek to open enroll into the school if the EL charter was started.

The roughly $225,000 MAPS could receive in the planning grant can be used to reimburse the costs of exploring if the two districts want to go forward with the idea. It can also be used for making some technology improvements in the building and staff development.

“There were technology purchases that honestly we never could have been able to afford otherwise,” Parks said of the grant for his middle school.

The two districts could receive grant money to start the charter for the first three years of the new program. Parks said that the DPI looks to award grants to those districts that are willing to make at least a four year commitment to their new schools. He said early indications from DPI are they would charter a jointly operated school by two districts.

Snyder said she and the MAPS board understand the uncertainty that the Hamburg area residents have been going through this year as Maple Grove along with Pine River faced possible closure due to budget cuts. She said the charter at Maple Grove will not only enhance the learning of their children, it will also bring some stability in keeping it open. One of the important components in that final decision would be how strongly the parents out there support the EL model and idea of chartering Maple Grove.

“We also don’t want to let down those of you who might think this is a great idea,” Snyder said.

After the nearly two-hour meeting, which included a lengthy question and answer period, those in attendance were surveyed to see the level of interest in the charter and asked to state how important the Fromm Scholarship factored into their decision. 63 people said they would like to see the two districts continue to explore the concept while 5 thought MAPS should stop exploring the idea.

Most of the comments said the quality of their children’s education outweighed the scholarship in their mind. Many respondents used the comment space to show additional support for EL, according to a transcript of the remarks provided by MAPS.

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