At this charter school, small is better

WINSTED – After skipping classes and failing courses at Canton High School, Christina Brevigleiri decided to switch to a much smaller charter school – so small that she no longer felt unnoticed.

The Explorations Charter School turned out to be a better fit, a tiny rural academy where students mix academics with activities such as biking, rock climbing and canoeing.

It was “one of the best decisions in my life,” Brevigleiri told the State Board of Education this month as the board voted to grant a five-year charter renewal to Explorations, one of the state’s smallest and oldest charter schools.

Charter advocates were pleased when state lawmakers recently passed a law lifting enrollment limits on charter schools. Nevertheless, Explorations has no plans to add more students.

Explorations charter 5-12-10

Jeff Sesko teaches a geography lesson to a class of nine students at Explorations Charter School (Robert A. Frahm)

It is an example of the variety of charters in Connecticut. Larger charters such as Hartford’s Jumoke Academy or New Haven’s nationally acclaimed Amistad Academy have sought to expand, winning attention for their success with urban minority students. Explorations reaches a mostly white, rural student body, and its tiny size is considered an asset.

“We’re intentionally small,” said Gail Srebnik, the school’s executive director. “A lot of the push in the legislature was to lift the [enrollment] cap so the Amistads can continue to grow, and we don’t want to grow.”

With about 80 students in grades 10 through 12, Explorations operates out of a former office building where small classrooms seldom have more than 15 students.

“They can’t hide or can’t slide through here,” Jeff Sesko, a veteran social studies teacher, said moments after finishing a geography lesson on the former Soviet republics with a class of nine students.

Despite a casual atmosphere where students and teachers are on a first name basis, teachers insist that students are held accountable. “We are always on the students’ side,” said Sesko. “We want them to get through, getting them to learn. They’ve got to get their work done. They’ve got to live up to standards.”

Students take standard classes such as English, math, history and foreign language Monday through Thursday, but Fridays are reserved for health classes, for electives such as crafts, music and yoga or for outdoor activities.

There are no gym classes. Instead, students join teachers in activities such as riding a bicycle trail, exploring caves or canoeing on the nearby Housatonic River.

“You get to see the kids in another environment,” said social studies teacher Bill Hallam. “You talk to students a little differently on a hike or a canoe trip than you do in a social studies classroom.”

“It just like makes it more exciting,” said sophomore Mia Stevenson, 15, who transferred from Housatonic Valley Regional High School this year. “I like it way better than gym class at [Housatonic], where you run laps.”

Stevenson makes the 40-minute drive from her home in Salisbury to Explorations, where she says she gets more personal attention from teachers. “My old school had like 20 or 30 people in each class,” she said. “This is a lot better.”

The school attracts “a real mixture of kids,” said Srebnik, who has headed Explorations for 11 years. “We have some kids who definitely could have made it in a larger school, but for whatever reason, they didn’t fit. . . . There are kids who are struggling academically, struggling socially.”

Special education students make up about one quarter of the enrollment – roughly twice the statewide average.

Some of Exploration’s students take classes at nearby Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and more than two-thirds of the school’s graduates enroll in two- or four-year colleges.

Explorations was one of the first schools to open under a 1996 state law allowing the creation of the publicly funded, entrepreneurial schools. The schools are free of most administrative and union rules, operating with greater flexibility in curriculum, scheduling and other matters.

Today, there are 18 charter schools in the state.

Like many charters, Explorations operates on a tight budget.  The school has no school psychologist or social worker. The school nurse doubles as an administrator. Teachers work for lower salaries than they could earn at other schools, Srebnik said. Most outside private grants have dried up.

Donations of supplies and equipment help hold costs down. “Parents will call: ‘Can you use a microwave?'” Srebnik said.

Charter schools are funded with a $9,300 per student line item in the state budget, but that covers about 85 percent of Explorations’ budget, according the Srebnik. The rest, she said, comes from federal grants and small private donations.

Charter supporters such as the reform group ConnCAN have lobbied aggressively to put charters on equal financial footing with other public schools by including them in the regular state aid formula. ConnCAN calls for a plan that would link state school aid directly to each student, sending the money to whatever school a student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

The plan, however, has drawn criticism from teacher unions, school boards and others who contend it would drain money from traditional public schools.

Despite the financial strains, schools such as Explorations have managed to survive. Two other charters, Common Ground High School in New Haven and the Odyssey Community School in Manchester, also won five-year renewals from the state last week.

In Connecticut, charters account for less than one percent of overall public school enrollment. Across the nation, educators debate the effectiveness of charters, with various research studies producing mixed results.

Nevertheless, charters have gained renewed attention from Obama administration officials, who consider the schools a promising example of school reform.

For students such as Christina Brevigleiri, there is little debate. In her appearance before the State Board of Education, she said she would not have graduated if she had not found Explorations.

“Everything about it told me this is where I belonged,” she said. “I could get a second chance.”