St. George Academy: New charter high school builds on first year successes

FEATURE — St. George Academy opened its doors this school year to students in grades 8-12 and promised something unique to the landscape of education in Washington County. As a public charter school, St. George Academy neither charges tuition to its students nor requires admission standards. As with all charter schools, families have chosen to enroll their students because of their desire to provide a different educational experience for their children.

Students participate in a learning experience at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Darren Edwards, St. George News

“This inaugural year has been a real proof of concept for the vision laid out in our charter and built by our amazing faculty and our first group of students,” academy director David Jones said. “We have obviously identified a real and necessary niche in the educational landscape of Washington County. Enrolling 200 students exceeded our expectations and it told us that there are students and families in our community that expect more from their educational outcomes.”

Jones intends to increase enrollment to over 300 for the 2018-19 academic year. The school was founded by community members and educators and chartered by the Utah State Charter School Board in 2015. From its inception, St. George Academy was intended to offer a new type of learning environment for students, grades 8-12, who desire an opportunity to pursue a high school experience that allows them to do more than learn facts – to become active advocates of their own educational progression.

Jones draws upon his experience as a university professor to guide the academy’s approach to college preparation. He said:

Before coming to St. George Academy, I spent over 20 years on a university campus in various roles. I have taught thousands of university students and, while most of them have the capacity to learn in more complex ways, it is a rare student who is fully prepared to navigate the transition from a passive student into an active student.

The average college drop out rate exceeds 30 percent; an increasing number of students require developmental coursework that is not credit-earning simply to prepare them for the introductory college courses.

There is a growing disconnect between what students experience in a conventional high school and what they encounter as a university student. Traditional K-12 schooling is a passive process where the student is only a receiver of information; knowledge is transmitted but little else is required. A higher education requires the student to become involved in the learning process. Doing the work, putting in an earnest effort, and allowing their minds to actively pursue an understanding; these are hallmarks of a successful student. One does not simply ‘get’ an education; they must help build it.

St. George Academy presents a rich climate that helps develop the mindset of an active learner in our students so when they arrive on their college campus, they have the advantage of being an experienced and industrious student.

St. George Academy is approved and overseen by the state charter school board and is compliant to all rules and regulations of the Utah State Office of Education. The Academy offers the same core classes as every other high school, as well as its own unique list of course offerings. Earning a diploma from St. George Academy requires more credits than is asked for by state standards as the academy’s academic program was built upon the standard admission requirements of America’s selective universities.

The academy’s faculty has built its own unique curricula that meets Utah Core standards while permitting a broader exploration of the material based upon individual expertise.

Pictured here is the outside view of St. George Academy, a charter high school for students in grades 8-12 located in Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Darren Edwards, St. George News

Dr. Joel Lewis, who teaches social science courses, describes his classroom as a “laboratory that is not just about the content but the methodology on how to create new knowledge for each student.”

“Each lecture I write is a carefully crafted presentation of multiple sources in a social science methodology verses just a social studies mindset,” Lewis said. “Each week my classroom is a peer review panel with constant interaction and critique of ideas, leading me to revise future presentation of my materials and inspiring greater inquiry in the students for future thoughts on these subjects and possible research once they are at a university.”

Ashton Basile, a member of the science faculty, commented on the opportunities that academy students have to go beyond the standard path of classes.

“Because of our small size and the growing diversity of courses available to students, we are flexible enough to tailor an educational program to our students’ interests and abilities. I currently have 8th-grade students in my physics class. It is not normal for 8th-graders to take physics but (St. George Academy) is not normal,” Basile said. “I gave a challenging physics test this week and saw real dedication among my youngest students. One of them said that they were so glad to finally have a class that has challenged them. Many students have told me that the academy is the first school that has pushed them to learn something new, something difficult.”

The current faculty of St. George Academy is comprised of a diverse group of educators with extensive teaching experience in high schools and universities. Their personal passion for the material and belief in the transformative power of an education is the critical component in the success of the academy’s mission.

“A school lives or dies by its teachers.” Jones said. “The teacher is the most important interface between the student and knowledge. Our faculty is incredible in their ability to engage their students with the material. They do not simply deliver content. They impart knowledge while training their students on how to employ that knowledge for even further understanding.”

Students participate in a learning experience at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Nicole Hancock, St. George News

“The unstated goal of St. George Academy is to turn its students into thinkers,” Jones said. “Whatever the content, whatever the area, we just want these young people to begin to truly think about the world around them. Our instructors have a deep devotion to their subject matter. To them, teaching is not simply a job, it is a calling. Students respond to them and work to rise to the expectations of this enriching environment.”

Faculty members choose to join St. George Academy because they believe in its mission and are committed to building a new paradigm in high school education. Due to its small class sizes and organizational structure, students receive a lot of direct attention from their teachers and each faculty member serves as an academic mentor to students during a designated class period each week.

“My interaction with my students is the most rewarding aspect of the academy” said Kelsey Gonzalez, a former university instructor and current science teacher. “I love getting to know them as people rather than just names in my classroom.”

St. George Academy is anticipating the addition of more members to its faculty in order to meet student demand and expand its program offerings.

“We are seeking new faculty members in science and math, foreign languages, and career and technical education, specifically computer science with an emphasis on coding and graphic design,” Jones said.

Outside of the classroom, students that have chosen to attend St. George Academy find a school environment that recognizes their value as unique individuals.

“It is essential to recognize that our students are more than just numbers,” Director of Student Services Jodi Jensen said. “We strive to connect to the whole student and create a safe place where they can express themselves and grow into well-rounded young adults. This generation of students has its own distinct identity with its own challenges and it is important that we do not simply impose an outdated standard upon them. Our task is to provide them with the tools they will need to come into their own being and learn to navigate the world they will soon inherit.”

The academy has attracted a diverse student body. Student share a common desire to have a more meaningful interaction with the world around them. Owing to its small size and open atmosphere, students have created an inclusive and safe environment that eliminates the rigid social dynamics common in larger, established schools. Students are encouraged to take “meaningful ownership” of the academy’s student culture and engage in the experience, Jensen said. Students develop their own clubs and student organizations, social events are organized by the student body and student-lead initiatives often determine campus activities.

Much of an education is gained outside of the classroom and St. George Academy seeks to foster the creative energies of its students by giving them the opportunity to bring their own ideas to fruition.

Students enjoy social interaction during a break at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Nicole Hancock, St. George News

St. George Academy also actively promotes its involvement in the community. It also encourages members of the area’s community to participate in academy events. In its first year of operation, students helped to collect emergency supplies for Puerto Rico, conducted a literacy drive and donated thousands of dollars worth of books to The Learning Center in St. George. Students volunteered at a local elementary school and established a food bank in conjunction with The Valley of Grace congregation to provide for families in need.

The academy’s robotics team was recently invited to the state championship held at Weber State University. Academy students have attended meetings and lectures at Dixie State University and have partnered with Utah State University’s extension services to install a greenhouse and gardens. Plans are underway to create a competitive gaming league, a literary journal and slam poetry invitational to take place later this spring.

Niki Hancock, chair of community outreach for the academy, believes that urging students to build something of value for the world outside of themselves is too often the missing piece of a quality education and works to help students build their vision for the academy and their own lives.

“At Saint George Academy, we all believe in the idea that a proper education is not a process that just prepares you for life; life itself is the education,” Hancock said. “Young people must be given the opportunity to determine how to use their own capacity to learn for their own progress and the progress of the world.”

St. George Academy is now enrolling students for the 2018-2019 academic year. Learn more and submit your student’s application on the academy’s website.

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Resources

  • St. George Academy | Address: 380 E. 3090 S., Washington City | Telephone: 435-319-0105 | Website

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