Nontraditional style honed at charter school

Learning thrives in small classes at Aberdeen academy

January 28, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the sun

Tammy Taylor divided the students in her English class into three groups and gave instructions on playing a version of "Jeopardy" that is based on vocabulary terms.

"A word for a paragraph in poetry," she said to the group of seven students.

"What is a stanza?" answered Asrielle Johnson.

Students answered questions, getting points for correct responses. The activity would have barely been noticeable to an observer except for that Taylor presided over the game while standing on a countertop.

"I try to use games and all sorts of unorthodox teaching methods to engage the students in the lesson," she said. "They learn more if they enjoy what they're doing."

Taylor's approach to teaching English and language arts is not the only nontraditional element at Restoration Academy, Harford County's first charter school. Established last fall with a $150,000 state grant, the Aberdeen school has 21 students in the eighth and ninth grades, six teachers and three staff members.

The academy is intended for students who struggle - academically or otherwise - in larger settings, said Nathaniel Johnson, who led the effort to start the school. The academy, which is open to any student in the county and currently includes students of all academic abilities, provides smaller classrooms, individualized learning and free tutoring.

"We selected students who excel, students who are average and some who are not doing well," said Johnson, the pastor of Aberdeen Bible Church, who helped start the school, which has an operating budget of $295,000.

The school creates an environment that is comparable to a private school education, Taylor said.

"Because we have a small number of students, we can cater to each child's specific needs," said Taylor, who taught in a private school for six years before coming to the charter school. "I can address the kids individually and match them up with peers that have different strengths."

Following state curriculum guidelines, students are taught mathematics, science, English, social studies, history and physical education. The school gives parents a choice, said Principal Louis Gordon.

"Restoration Academy concentrates on individual learning plans for students," Gordon said. "It gives parents a chance to get the best education for their child, without paying a lot of money for it."

The school is in the Center for Educational Opportunity, next to Aberdeen High School.

For some students, the school is the difference between success and failure. Stacey Cheuvront transferred from Aberdeen High School in mid-semester.

"I wasn't getting the teacher's attention when I needed help," the 15-year-old Aberdeen resident said. "And there were too many people at the high school."

For Asrielle, the academy was an opportunity for a better learning experience, she said.

"It is better to learn in a classroom where the teacher can help you," said the 13-year-old, who came to the academy from Aberdeen Middle School. "In some classes the teachers never have time."

Although the students agree that small classes make learning more enjoyable, getting used to wearing a uniform took some adjustment. The uniform includes a royal blue shirt for eighth-graders and a navy blue shirt for ninth-graders that is worn with khaki skirts or pants.

"I was really depressed when I first heard that I had to wear a uniform," said Tiffany Myers, 14, of Edgewood, who had been a student at Joppatowne High. "Now I love them. It's easier in the morning. You don't have to hurry and find a shirt and pants that match. And there's less laundry to do."

Being a small school in the startup phase means there are limitations, Gordon said. Small classrooms means fewer course offerings.

"If a student wants to learn several foreign language courses, then this is not the school for them," he said. "Students can take Spanish, but we don't offer German, or French, or any other language."

However, as the student body continues to grow, so will the curriculum. "This year we're in our infancy," he said. "Next year we plan to add 10th grade and have a student body of about 75. As a result, we will have to hire more teachers and add classes."

And maybe more countertops.

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