The traditional public school system in the United States is under heavy scrutiny, as many states’ systems struggle to move kids on to college, where they presumably go on to learn the skills necessary for a career. Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, Massachusetts, is trying to change that.
“There is a disconnect between what students are leaving high school knowing and able to do and what’s expected of them in college and what’s expected of them in their careers,” said Robert Beatty, executive director of Atlantis Charter School.
Atlantis opened in 1995 as a K-8 school, but it has since grown to include a high school that takes a unique approach toward creating a highly qualified workforce for industries near its campuses.
Because Atlantis is a charter school, it has autonomy in setting its curricula, so long as students meet state and federal education requirements. Atlantis took that freedom to bridge the divide between K-12 education, college and careers, Beatty said. By partnering with local leaders, Atlantis designed a high school with post-graduate life in mind.
Charter vs. Traditional Public Schools
Charter schools, which have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, are publicly-funded schools that operate independently through contracts. These schools must meet the state and national education standards, but they can operate independently, setting their own curricula. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are more than 6,800 charter schools educating almost 3 million students in the U.S., and 67 percent of these schools are single-site schools run as nonprofits, 20 percent are run through nonprofits that have more than one school and 13 percent are managed by for-profit companies.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, found that there are differences in management structure that impact student learning. According to a Chicago Sun-Times story on CREDO’s 2017 “Charter Management Organizations” report, “although quality varies across the country, chains of three or more schools generally fare better than stand-alone schools, and owner-operated charters fared better than schools that hired out their day-to-day management.”
Critics of charter schools say that the public funds for education are benefiting private businesses. Additionally, when a student leaves their traditional public school, the funding goes with them, leaving less money for many schools that are already struggling to operate. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Diane Ravitch, an education historian and advocate against the privatization movement, she argued against charter schools, saying that some have been found to push out students who threaten high test scores, misappropriate funding and avoid accepting students with disabilities. Additionally, countries with top-performing public schools lack a charter system, she wrote.
“As large as the gulf can be between charter cheerleading and charter reality, it doesn’t represent the greatest danger of these schools,” Ravitch wrote. “They have become the leading edge of a long-cherished ideological crusade by the far right to turn education into a consumer choice rather than a civic obligation. Abandoning public schools for a free-market system eviscerates our basic obligation to support them whether our own children are in public schools, private schools or religious schools, and even if we have no children at all.”
However, charter school advocates say the autonomous management of these schools and ability for parents to choose campuses leads to better-educated students.
According to the 2008 “Hopes, Fears, & Reality” published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, charter schools have greater minority enrollment and a higher prevalence of free or reduced-price lunches than traditional public schools. Charter schools tend to offer fewer options in each school when it comes to college-focused programs. Furthermore, about 35 percent of charter schools reported a longer school year than the mandated minimum length (35 percent of charter vs. 22 percent of traditional public).
Charters also tend to have longer school days at middle and elementary levels, resulting in more class time, but the high school charter day is about 20 minutes shorter than the traditional public school. Moreover, charter schools tend to have fewer students per classroom in elementary and high school levels, implying more one-on-one instruction time. Across all grades, charter classrooms had only two more students per class than traditional public schools. They can also take a more personalized approach to educating students.
“In their applications, charter schools serving at-risk populations are more likely to describe an explicit intervention strategy and are more likely to describe strategies that employ both personal support services and instructional supports,” the study said.
The Business of Learning
In the case of Atlantis, its leaders say their ability to choose curricula means they can adapt to changing business needs, something that traditional schools can’t accomplish as quickly, due to their long-established norms. To do so in a traditional school would require a redesign of the education model, Beatty said.
Prior to Atlantis’ high school debut in 2014, its leaders hosted a series of workshops and discussions with local community leaders, industry and higher education professionals to learn the desirable skills students should have upon graduation, said Michael Lauro, associate executive director at Atlantis Charter School.
Although much of the school day resembles a traditional, public school, high school juniors and seniors participate in the school’s academy program, which features a choice of five academies, a block schedule inspired by universities, as well as an adjunct teaching staff. Some of the courses can result in college credit, via arrangements with local higher education institutions, Lauro said. As freshmen and sophomores, students gain insights into the available academies and they choose one as they exit grade 10, Lauro said.
The five academies are business and entrepreneurship; S.T.E.M.; arts, culture and design; health, med-tech and sports medicine; and teacher development.
In the Health, Med-Tech, Sports Medicine Academy, students learn fundamentals of health care, medical terminology and math, along with ethics and professionalism, said Diane Richard, an adjunct instructor in the academy, who is also school nurse and nurse coordinator for the Atlantis Charter School’s three campuses. Students who come through her program find that they can confirm that health care is a field they want to enter, making their commitment to college stronger.
“It makes that transition into school and the workplace a bit easier because they have some base knowledge,” she said.
Richard’s 19 juniors and 12 seniors go on field trips to museum exhibits, hospitals and nursing schools, but they also go through practical exercises. Through use of a SimMan, a realistic mannequin for medical instructional use, students practice checking vital signs, speaking with patients and learning how to handle various ailments. Teachers can program the mannequin for certain scenarios, and through a two-way mirror, an instructor can act as the patient and respond to the students’ questions and cues. This approach to health care education is far more advanced and realistic than a basic anatomy or biology course at a traditional high school, Richard said.
Richard decided to include physical examinations in the academy based on outside recommendation. She said she spoke with a contact at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who suggested the academy cover advanced interviewing and physical assessments, as most high school graduates hoping to work in the medical field lack these skills when they enter college.
The curriculum could easily change, though.
Design and Dime
The benefit of Atlantis Charter School’s design is that administrators can continually collaborate with outside partners, who can tell how their marketplaces are changing. “We’ll hear that real time from our partners, and we’ll embed that immediately in the work that our students are doing,” Beatty said.
Business partners can benefit from this arrangement as well. “Ultimately, they get a qualified pipeline of future employees and exposure to the training and education of their possible future workforce when they’re at the high school level,” Beatty said. This is a driver of economic growth in the region and a mission the school’s partners can get behind.
Professor Matt Kressy, founding director of MIT Integrated Design & Management, a two-year graduate program at MIT, also serves as an academic adviser to Atlantis’ S.T.E.M. Academy. He helped with the physical design of the current high school campus and school’s new, 100,000-square-foot building, which is under construction. He specified equipment and furnishings for classrooms, identified a former student of his to be an adjunct instructor and helped her develop the curriculum.
Kressy’s primary reason for partnering with Atlantis is that it operates in an area that is in need. “Fall River is not a very wealthy area of Massachusetts,” he said.
According to The U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income there in 2015 was $35,213, and the agency estimated in 2016 that 23.2 percent of the city was in poverty. The Herald News, a newspaper serving Fall River and five surrounding towns, wrote that Fall River had an 8.5 percent unemployment rate in February 2017, compared to the national average of 4.9 percent.
There’s only one other charter school in Fall River that serves grades six, seven, eight and nine, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, making Atlantis the only chartered high school in the city of about 89,000. Among traditional, public schools in the city, there are eight elementary, two pre-K through eighth, one day school, three middle and two high schools.
Kressy said that at the heart of the S.T.E.M. Academy is the design process. A goal of the program is to teach design thinking so students have a method to solve complex problems they face every day.
“The way we hope it helps the students is that it gives them confidence in their ability to create something from nothing, their ability to take a very complicated, murky problem and use a variety of techniques or methodologies to explore that problem, to understand it, to map it, to know it inside and out, to know it functionally and to know it emotionally, to have empathy for the people who are immersed in that problem and to then understand all the tools and methods available to solve that problem,” Kressy said. “If you can do that, you’re probably going to be a very, very successful person in life.”
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email email@example.com.