Students pursue what interests them at Montello charter school

December 5, 2018

MONTELLO — Garrett Kratz, Chalisty Edwards and 30 other students were studying precisely what they wanted to Friday at High Marq Environmental Charter School.

Kratz is interested in discarded metals and examined how they might impact the environment today and down the road, he explained in an otherwise quiet classroom in the Montello School District. Earlier this year, Kratz tied high-powered magnets to rope and surfaced metal objects like nails and steel wiring from tires from Lake Montello.

He is busy labeling the items for his school project — noting when and where he found them, and he might eventually do some magnetic ice fishing.

“I’m interested in environmental sciences,” said Kratz, a senior who joined Montello’s charter school as a seventh-grader. “I’m considering a career path in aquatic biology.”

His classmate, Edwards, is interested in animals — specifically, cats. She’s also interested in unexplained sounds that occur around the world.

The junior studied the domestication of cats Friday — interested especially in learning why, where and when humans started bringing them into their homes, as well as the various purposes for breeding cats, she said.

“Have you ever heard of a ‘toyger’?” asked Edwards, who earlier this year left behind a more traditional high school setting in Montello for High Marq.

“They were bred to help people understand the decreasing population of tigers.”

Student needs

Independent learning isn’t for everyone, but neither is traditional school, said Skylar Primm and Amanda Bolan, the two lead teachers of High Marq, which Montello opened for students in 2010. Primm joined the charter in its second year, and Bolan came aboard in its third.

In two adjoined classrooms, the school holds 32 students in grades 7-12 who enrolled for various academic or social reasons. They appear more engaged when studying the topics they choose, the teachers said, and some of them greatly benefit from having a smaller set of peers and reduced teacher-to-student ratio, when compared with traditional schooling.

“I must admit I would not have succeeded in a school like this,” Bolan said. “Self-direction is something I didn’t gain until college — I very much benefited from traditional schooling, the similarities from class to class. Not everyone has the same needs.”

Every Thursday, students participate in field activities outside the school designed to further engage them in their studies, Primm said. Most recently, they visited the Montello Historic Preservation Society, viewing the exhibits and asking myriad questions of the guides.

Armed with whatever knowledge they gained on the tour, six teams of mixed-age students then toured the city that afternoon, exploring the buildings in their hometown, and noting, for example, their various ages and construction materials.

“I think that’s the biggest thing — 20 percent of their time here is spent doing some kind of outdoor work,” Primm said.

Research shows students become more engaged in learning when they get outside, Bolan said, and that makes perfect sense to her.

“One of their projects was planting ‘arrowhead’ — a native species that needs to be planted in water,” Bolan said. “They learned how it prevents erosion.”

On field days, High Marq students often work with whatever local agencies or businesses deal in their particular area of study — sometimes working with biologists from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“The school connects them to their community,” Bolan said. “It connects them to their stories.”

New ideas

Nearly a decade ago, former Montello Superintendent Jeff Holmes and the school board applied for and received a state charter school planning grant. The district then hired Sarah Hackett as grant coordinator to help put it together.

“Their vision was to bridge the community and the school,” Hackett said. “The district was struggling to stay afloat, financially — as a lot of rural districts do — and they were looking for something that could revitalize their district.

“They were looking for new ideas.”

Today, Hackett is the director of the Wisconsin Resource Center for Charter Schools, which launched in February as the state received $95 million for charter school support from the U.S. Department of Education. Several Wisconsin school districts are now submitting applications to the state Department of Public Instruction for five years of charter school funding made available through the program.

The deadline to apply is in February, said Hackett, whose organization provides resources for new and existing charter schools throughout the state, such as training and technical support.

“Charter schools like High Marq do a number of things for school districts and towns,” she said. “The grants are nice, yes, but charters provide another option for students when options seem few and far between, especially in rural areas.”

Charters also allow school districts to pilot new practices, Hackett said. Several years ago, Montello allowed High Marq students to use cellphones in their classrooms and later used what the charter learned from its experience to form a new cellphone policy for the whole school district. It highlights how school districts might benefit from everything their charters learn, Hackett said, ranging from the use of multidisciplinary forms of instruction, such as combining social studies lessons with English, to seeing the ways students respond to flexible scheduling.

Several school districts have visited High Marq recently as they study the possibility of launching their own charters, Montello Superintendent Margaret Banker said.

“Many charters get hung up somewhere along the way; they experience bumps and challenges that lead them to disbanding,” Banker said. “That hasn’t happened here because of our stable leadership in the classroom, as well as strong partnerships in the community.”

Outlasting misconceptions

Wisconsin Resource Center for Charter Schools recently named High Marq as a “mentor” charter, providing it with $10,000 in funding as its leaders work with startup charters, such as the one in the Necedah School District, Bolan said. The extra funding also helps the school pay for materials and travel.

“It gives us the opportunity to not struggle — to maintain our relationships in the community,” Bolan said of the “mentor” designation.

Solid footing also means High Marq should outlast the misconceptions people might still hold about charter schools. “The biggest thing people need to understand is that charters function differently from community to community,” Bolan said. “So it’s important people ask questions — to be curious and learn more about it because we’ll talk to anyone.”

Primm said High Marq follows all state requirements for standardized testing. Younger students take the Forward Exam and juniors take the ACT. The school is “test heavy” each spring because of these requirements, but High Marq benefits from the state’s gradual move toward more “skills-based” testing, he said.

“Now they’ll do well as long as they’re able to explain something, as opposed to remembering sets of facts, and that greatly benefits our style of teaching.”

‘Like a family’

Kratz joined High Marq not long after he and his mother, Kim Johnson, attended community meetings concerning the school’s launch. Initially drawn to the independent learning aspect of the school, Kratz eventually gained an appreciation for the outdoors as his seventh-grade year went on, he said.

“I discovered what I enjoyed along the way,” Kratz said, noting how in addition to magnetic fishing, he is working on a project regarding England’s Magna Carta, research related to his high interest in Medieval times.

Edwards said her interest in “weird sounds” formed at the time she first read about strange, low-frequency rumbles people had heard worldwide, how people had recorded the “foghorn-like” sounds for several decades, whatever they are. She said she later became interested in strange sounds scientists had detected in the world’s oceans — the kind of research she likely wouldn’t have time for in traditional high school.

“I wanted a new experience,” Edwards said of enrolling in High Marq as a junior. “Here, we’re able to choose the projects we want to do, and I’m the kind of person who’s 100 percent focused on the things I’m interested in. It’s fun; everybody is so happy here. It’s like a family.”

Kratz gestured to the classmates working behind him, saying, “If I had to say one thing about the school I would say we’re a close community. It’s a small space — we need to communicate well and work things out together for this to work.”

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