St. Lawrence Valley Tech charter school could be open in Potsdam or Canton by fall 2014
Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 5:21 pm

By CRAIG FREILICH

A new charter school in Canton or Potsdam could be up and running as soon as the fall of 2014.

“There’s no firm date right now, but if the project is approved, we have three years to get it going,” said Dave Lennox, who has been speaking for a group of citizens who are pursuing the idea.

“My personal target is autumn 2014. Whether we achieve it or not is another issue.”

St. Lawrence Valley Tech is intended to be an alternative to a traditional school, using “problem-based learning” and collaboration to foster independent thinking and problem solving and requiring students to be able to explain what they did and how they did it.

For instance, in a school in Watervliet, near Albany, they wanted to know if they could use Hudson River water for drinking water.

The students did an analysis of the water with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the City of Watervliet, and made a presentation to the city council.

“That’s problem-based learning,” Lennox said.

Although they do intend for their students to meet New York State Regents standards, there would not be the usual testing seen in traditional schools. “There will be no grades, per se, but there will be an evaluation procedure similar to a professional evaluation” such as what a corporate manager would regularly face.

At a review every 10 weeks, “the students would present to a panel. They would have to exhibit what their problem was, and explain the solutions. A student’s parent or caregiver would be on the panel – they would have an open invitation to participate with the evaluation of the child,” Lennox said.

Teachers, with a proposed one-to-20 teacher to student ratio, would be mentors and advisors, staying with students through their time at the school.

If a student has a proficiency in some specialty, such as music or math, he or she would be encouraged to take a course at one of the colleges or one of the local traditional schools, by a negotiated arrangement.

The school would be funded by $500,000 in startup money from the state disbursed over three years, which is typical for a new charter school. Sustaining funds would come from the usual per-pupil funding under the state aid formula of the school district where the student lives. There would be no tuition charge.

At the moment the proposal is to start with grades 7 to 9, adding one grade onto each end each year, becoming a grade 6 through 10 school in the second year, and so on, depending on applications and capacity.

“Students will be chosen by application. Anybody can apply,” Lennox said.

“We’re not picking from the top of the pile. If we have more applicants than there are slots, we have a lottery.

“We are really insisting on not making this an elitist school, but serving the general need of our county,” especially since “our local schools are contracting” in the face of declining population, uncertain financial support from the state, and vocal opposition to higher local property taxes.

They are looking for a space in Potsdam or Canton, and “we are in conversations with some folks,” but they are not pursuing any of the many possibilities in both Potsdam and Canton just yet, Lennox said.

Lennox, a retired Norwood-Norfolk Central science teacher, said the group is preparing a relatively brief proposal letter which they hope to submit to the state education department this month. If that is approved, then they will submit a more comprehensive proposal of up to 60 pages.

Among those involved in the work are Donna Kennedy, an education instructor and program coordinator at St. Lawrence University; Ginger Thomas, a reading teacher at St. Mary’s School in Canton who is also an education consultant; Don Mesibov, who organizes the annual Constructivist Conferences on education at SLU; Elizabeth Wultsch, an instructor in Clarkson University’s School of Engineering; and several others in and outside of education.

A lot of what he is describing is “constructivist,” Lennox said.

Lennox said he began exploring educational alternatives while he was still teaching science at NNCS.

He met Mesibov along the way, who offered insight, direction and encouragement.

“Donna (Kennedy) tried in the past to get a charter school started in Canton, but it was too expensive,” he said. He had become acquainted with Thomas when he took courses from her.

He said that Wultsch and another organizer who has worked for big business “understand what business and industry need, from the perspective of what employers are looking for.”

He said they have until Sept. 4 to get a proposal in to the state Education Department, “but July 15 is our deadline.” They will find out by Sept. 14 if their proposal is acceptable.

If their proposal is approved then they compile a more complete project plan of no more than 60 pages “that describes carefully and specifically what our schedule would look like. If the state approves that, a state Education Department representative would come up and work with us to get the school up and running.” There would be many review and approval steps in between.

“The state would give us three years” to demonstrate that they have a working and worthwhile school, “but we think we can do that in one year.”

They have a web site, www.SLValleyTech.com, with a survey of sorts that they hope community members will take.

The survey asks about satisfaction, or lack of it, with methods of instruction and student assessment being used in local schools now.

Among the questions the survey asks is, “Problem Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. Activities are designed to solve a problem and reflect the types of learning and work people do outside the classroom. Problem Based Learning teaches students how to reflect upon their own ideas and opinions, exercise choice, and make decisions that affect the learning process. Would you be interested in a public school that used Problem Based Learning as a primary teaching strategy?” Answers a survey taker can check run from “Extremely interested” to “Not at all interested.”

“It would be extremely helpful to us. We have to show community support,” said Lennox.