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Plan for new school in Farmington makes its debut

The Farmington School District gave some more structure to its plans for a new school of choice this week, but after the first of two community meetings it appears there are still more questions than definite answers.

The school Laura Pierce, the district’s director of innovative programming, and teaching and learning director Caleb Drexler Booth described to parents, teachers and other community members at a Tuesday evening meeting is very much like the outline laid out when the idea for the school was presented in November. The school, which the district is currently calling Farmington New School, would focus at first on students ages 9 to 11 — roughly fourth through sixth grades. It would not have grade levels in the traditional sense, though, instead allowing students to advance when they are ready. It would put a focus on hands-on learning and ask students to learn by completing projects rather than sitting at a desk and listening to a teacher lecture.

The idea, Pierce and Drexler Booth said, is to give students more control over how they learn. As they talked about the school, both talked frequently about advisors who would work with students on their lessons and very little about teachers. Those advisors would stay with students for multiple years. Pierce and Drexler Booth said they heard from students during their planning process that they liked the idea of having a familiar face from one year to the next.

Students also said they want to be able to work at their own pace.

“Students want to be able to be done when they’re done or work further when they need to,” Pierce said.

The goal of the new school is to help students develop some of the skills — the ability to collaborate or think critically, to adapt to different situations and to be creative — that will serve them best once they leave school.

To do that, the plan for the school focuses on five key tactics: creating and nurturing community, fostering strong relationships between the school and the community; inspiring continuous learning and growth; expanding learning beyond the classroom walls; and allowing a flexible schedule for student learning.

The school would have time set aside specifically for math and literacy lessons, but its project-based structure could allow several other subjects to be rolled into a single lesson. Students could be grouped based on ability and interests.

Drexler Booth said the new school is meant for all students. Parents who are interested will fill out an application, but selection of the 100 or so students who would attend in the school’s first year would be selected at random.

Pierce and Drexler Booth hope to have applications from parents by April 1 if the school board approves the plan.

Those are the basics of the new school, but there are still plenty of questions to answer. There are no details yet about exactly how the space at the district’s instructional service center would be used for this new school, or what exactly the student-teacher ratio would be. There has been no decision on the length of the school day or the exact criteria that would be used to determine how students advance, or, assuming the school eventually expands to accept eighth graders, when they would be ready to move on to high school.

Pierce and Drexler Booth said some of those answers will start to come once there are teachers hired for the new school, a process that would likely start soon after the board gives approval.

Even then, this school is likely to be a work in progress until the first day of school in the fall and even beyond.

“Our goal is to have the most critical components of this school when we start the school when we start the school year,” Pierce said. “The rest we will grow into.”

There was a mix of excitement and apprehension about the school among parents at Tuesday’s meeting. Kate Zweber, a former school teacher, said she’s ready to sign her daughter up right now, assuming she can convince the fourth grader it’s a good idea. She likes the idea students are learning real-world skills.

“They’re doing projects,” she said. “That’s how my husband works in the real world.”

Jenni Koles, who has a kindergartener and a fourth grader in Farmington schools, was intrigued by the school but hesitant to sign on when there are still so many unknowns.

“I still feel like there’s a ton of questions that I don’t know,” she said.

The district was scheduled to hold a second community meeting from 5 to 6 p.m. Jan. 9 at Riverview Elementary School. Pierce and Drexler Booth will present the plan to school board members Jan. 13.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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