Why I voted No on the Exploration Academy

On Monday, January 7, our School Board voted 6-1 in favor of expanding the Charter School offerings within our school district.  The Exploration Academy (EA) is a Charter High School that will be housed within our existing Verona Area High School.  The plan is to use a portion of the K-Wing as a home base.  The EA is based off the concepts of competency based learning.  It focuses more on real world application of knowledge and goes outside the traditional structure of the high school experience.

It is hard to explain the conflicting thoughts and feelings I had about EA.  I knew that the Charter was going to be approved regardless of my vote so I didn’t ask questions prior to the vote.  I feel I should have briefly explained my vote, so I will attempt to lay out my reasons here.

The development of the EA began over a year ago with ideas of improving the current VIP program.  If you check the VAHS website you find the following information about VIP:  Not all students are successful in the traditional classroom. One of the hallmarks at Verona is the respect and accommodation for different styles of learning and needs. VAHS offers the Verona Individualized Program (VIP) which encourages a new feeling of success with a renewed sense of self. Students are provided the opportunity to be successful where more one-on-one attention can be provided. This unique opportunity emphasizes creativity and learning. With dedicated instructors, students can find within themselves the ideals of individual potentials, respect and healthy relationships. 

Then in another location I found:   Students have an individualized curriculum that can include project-based learning, on-line courses, social-emotional groups, and work experience.

The traditional academic experience, bell schedule, seat time, and grading structures were proving to be challenging to supporting students who qualified for the VIP program.  So Michael Murphy our HS Associate Principal, along with others began to look at ways to enhance this program.  The wanted to reach out to more students as the current program limited who they could include.

The result of the workgroups efforts is a unique blend of experiential and project based learning that does not follow a typical school schedule.  There will not be academic grades or class ranks (I think), but instead identification of key competencies that students need to be successful in the future beyond high school.  Students will work with parents and educators to set up individualized learning plans.  Each student will be able to personalize the educational experience therefore making it more meaningful and more impactful.

Sounds good right?  It is good.  It is a brave concept and deserves applause for the efforts behind it and the work done to this point.  I think an individualized lesson plan is something that should be implemented much earlier than HS.  However, based on the population initially targeted and the scope of initial implementation it is a good concept.   So why then did I vote against it?

My no vote centered on one main idea which I feel is supported by various reasons.  The cake wasn’t done.   I just didn’t feel that all of the details had been worked out.   Some of the details relate to what the program will actually look like.  Some of the details relate to the cost.  Some of the details relate to who is accepted and eligible for the program.

The VIP program was serving students who had not seen success in our current classrooms.  They were in need of a different and unique approach that would give them the opportunity to find success.  In that sense had EA solely focused on VIP and self-identified at-risk students, I would have supported it and been one of the biggest cheerleaders.  However, by expanding it out to students who didn’t need the alternative structure but want it as a matter of convenience or preference, EA I think jeopardizes the service to the population that needs it most.  In trying to address achievement gap issues and graduating students with vital life skills, VIP is a vital program.  I am concerned that the resources desperately needed by our at-risk students may be diminished due to serving students who have been successful in traditional classroom settings.

The second sub-reason related to the evolution of program development.   Verona Area 4-K took over five years to become a reality.  There was a move to approve a 4k program when I first moved to Verona.  Then it was tabled, then there were more committees and research and site visits and finally it was implemented this past fall after 5-7 years.  Now at first blush, one may say that this program doesn’t have the same financial or service impact that 4K did.  You would be correct.  However there is a belief that the EA could someday be the model for how VAHS operates.  To me that sets up a very steep departure from traditional educational systems and models.   Is that a bad thing, not necessarily?  But it is important to have a solid plan to ensure that implementation and transition go smoothly.  I just feel that more time was needed to truly understand what this is going to look like both in the short term and long term.

Finally, my vote of no was very much related to who I represent.  My colleague on the board often refers to the three legged stool analogy.  We have a duty to serve students, be mindful of the needs of the district, and to be a good employer.  As an elected official to the board I didn’t feel I could vote yes without seeing a budget.  When I asked to see one at the first reading of the Charter I was told that VAHS and EA would be working very closely together and there would be a lot of “fluidity” (My word).   I never saw a budget.  I am not sure about many of you out there and how you manage your finances for your family, or for a business, but as an elected representative of the school district before I commit financial resources that affect your tax dollars I feel like I should have an idea of how those dollars are being spent.   At minimum there should be a pro forma process to say this is what we anticipate the budget to be, this is how we see the budget being allocated, etc.  It’s not that I don’t trust those involved.  When they apply to the DPI for additional grant funding, they will need to provide a detailed budget.  Therefore, why couldn’t we have seen something?   I have the utmost respect for Pam Hammen, Michael Murphy, and Superintendent Gorrell.  I just feel that as someone elected to represent all families and taxpayers in the district, seeing a budget should have been part of the process.

I will close by saying, that I wish the EA nothing but the best and I am excited to see it benefit students who truly need it.  I thank Michael Murphy and the rest of the working group that put the time and effort to bring the proposal forward.  It shows how strong a commitment that group has in wanting to do what’s best for students.  Time will tell if this model is the model of the future.  In the meantime, I look forward to hearing the success stories of the students who utilize EA.

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About johnmmcculley

Father of three, currently serving in my first term on the Verona Area School Board. Hoping to help foster more open discussions about the future of education in my community.
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