ST. GEORGE – The 2013 Utah Charter School of the Year has been offered to George Washington Academy, which offers a rigorous yet rewarding educational experience to involved students and their parents.
At the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools 2013 conference, held June 17 and 18 in Provo, GWA was named Charter School of the Year. The award is a prestigious honor signifying academic excellence recognized by education professionals from across the state.
“We are a family and celebrate our successes knowing that we are all an important piece of the puzzle, so this award is very special to us,” GWA Vice Principal Anya Yeager said.
“This award represents the hard work and dedication of administration, teachers, staff, parents and students of George Washington Academy,” said Shannon Greer, president of GWA’s board of directors. “Our administrative team has worked very hard to develop the academic climate we all enjoy here.”
GWA’s background and goals
Located at 2277 South 3000 East in St. George, GWA is a public charter school serving Washington County students in grades K-8. Highlights include a full-day kindergarten program, a state-of-the-art science lab, two computer and technology labs, a library and comprehensive music and art programs. The school focuses on challenging academics, with all students offered curriculum at least one grade level ahead and opportunities for further advancement. Students wear uniforms and are held to high standards of behavior, as character education is a cornerstone of GWA’s teachings. The school motto is “Building a Strong Foundation.”
GWA is one of five schools in Washington County (four currently operational, one in development) offering a free charter education to students. Upon opening its doors in 2006, the school had 414 enrolled students; since then, attendance has more than doubled to just over 1,000.
“GWA works hard to create integrated, relevant and authentic learning opportunities for students,” Yeager said. “Everything we do, from the school’s policies, operational procedures and allocation and use of resources, is tied to the educational agenda of the school. This school was created with a specific goal for advanced learning and we take that vision very seriously.”
“We enrolled (him) in GWA after studying the curriculum choices they had made and comparing them to the materials used at our neighborhood public school and to those at local private schools,” parent Phil Loomis said, whose son Nathaniel will enter fifth grade at GWA this fall. “GWA’s emphasis on academics, especially their commitment to the Core Knowledge educational approach, is what tipped the scales for us,” he said. “GWA also encourages (and to some degree requires) a higher level of parental involvement, which I believe demonstrates to students the value the adults in their lives put on education and shows our support for their efforts.”
The guiding influence for the school’s foundation was the book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” by Dr. E.D. Hirsch, who believed there are certain concepts that all students should know and understand in order to be contributing members of society. Emphasis is placed on math and language arts in GWA’s classrooms, which use the Core Knowledge Curriculum augmented by the Saxon Math, Spalding Spelling and Shurley Language Arts programs. Family involvement is also a major facet of GWA education; each school year, parents are required to participate in school committees, parent-teacher functions, classroom assistance, lunch duty and more.
“As a school, we have refined our goals into three desired results for student learning, which we feel are wholly attainable and worthwhile: effective communication, strong character and social responsibility and thinking and reasoning,” Yeager said. “The school’s curriculum and instructional strategies are aligned with the school’s desired results for student learning, and each of our chosen goals ties in with the subjects we teach every day and our supplemental programs.”
Yeager further explained GWA’s complex and focused curriculum method: “By outlining the precise content that every child should learn in language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music and the visual arts, the Core Knowledge curriculum offers the ability to identify the foundational knowledge every child needs to reach these goals and to teach it, grade-by-grade, year-by-year in a coherent, age-appropriate sequence.
“If a student is studying the Italian Renaissance in fifth grade, he or she will also learn about the art of that time period during art class and the composers and important musical aspects of that time during music class. Our curriculum is very integrated in that way. Teachers also use real-life experiences and hands-on teaching whenever possible, as they understand that students learn best what is meaningful to them.”
“Each morning, the students at George Washington Academy recite a passage that we see them living out in real time: ‘We are a community of learners. We will do whatever it takes to learn. We are building a strong foundation by believing we can and working our plan and feeling the power of success!’” Greer said.
Unique charter aspect and success
Like all public schools in Washington County, GWA is accountable to the Utah State Office of Education. However, it is not affiliated with the Washington County School District. GWA is authorized by the Utah State Charter School Board.
The school’s entire faculty was invited to participate in its accreditation process, along with parents and community members, with the goal of inspiring continuous improvement. GWA’s core curriculum meets or exceeds state requirements in all areas. Students undergo a unique series of assessments to monitor progress and tailor instruction to meet individual needs.
“Formal and informal assessments, which are considered an essential element of our curriculum, occur throughout the learning process,” Yeager said. “Additionally, George Washington Academy complies with the state testing schedule for all required exams.”
GWA scores consistently among the highest schools in Utah for academic achievement. In the 2012-13 school year, GWA was 95 percent proficient in math, 93 percent proficient in language arts and 87 percent proficient in science. Graduates have gone on to win science awards, play lead roles in art and music productions and represent local high schools as valedictorian.
Despite this success, charter schools are not always a favored option in Washington County. Dixie Montessori Academy, a charter school under development in St. George, recently faced opposition from the Washington County School District and Washington County School Board, who asserted that the establishment of a new charter school would be a detriment to existing public institutions in the area. Valley Academy, established in 2012 in Hurricane, also received mixed response from the community.
Charter schools have long been a source of controversy across the nation. Studies, most notably a 2009 report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, have accused charter schools of hiring under-qualified staff, having insufficient funds for teachers’ salaries and academic materials and poor academic performance. These analyses have been rebuked and debated by other scholars, leading to no significant conclusions about the impact of these institutions on the educational system.
“In the five years he has attended GWA, Nathaniel has kept up with the often demanding pace of academics and is proud to tell others about his school,” Loomis said. “In addition to the core subjects, he has enjoyed being involved in the art and music programs, both of which are often on the ‘cut’ list for struggling school districts but remain required elements of Core Knowledge at GWA. He has also benefited from the school’s emphasis on character education, which stresses a different trait each month and recognizes students from each class who best exemplify it.”
“Our charter was founded on academic rigor and we have high expectations of our students as well as our faculty and staff members. As a result, our students have consistently performed very well,” Greer said. “Our administrative team is very thorough in their reporting and our business administrator has been diligent in assuring that our school is financially viable. Each of those key factors were taken into account when our school was nominated and selected as Charter School of the Year.”
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George Washington Academy promotional video | Video courtesy of George Washington Academy
Becoming part of GWA
School administrators and parents agree that GWA has a great deal to offer students, but is not for every family.
“GWA has provided my children with a challenging, strong foundation towards their academic careers. It has also given them the work ethic, organizational skills and study habits required to be successful in high school, college and beyond,” said Isabelle Fleischer, whose three children have all attend GWA. “It was a great fit for our family and I am very grateful for what it has given my children.”
Loomis said, “My view of GWA is that it is an excellent education choice for many families, but not a good fit for everyone. Student success at GWA is reached via a partnership of student, teacher and parent. While this is the ideal equation for any school, I believe at GWA it’s critical that all three elements be present and I’m glad that its administration and teachers encourage parents to be involved. Expectations are set high at GWA and, to date, our students have risen to the challenge. GWA also has a strong special education program and, although our family has not had occasion to be a part of that program, I’m proud to be involved with a school that values every student, not just the high achievers.
“To parents considering GWA for their kids, I would say that our school is a wonderful but challenging environment for their children. I would let them know of the time required for homework and of the support that will be expected of them as parents. This is most definitely not a ‘put them on the bus and let the teachers take care of them’ sort of school.”
This coming school year, GWA has open seats in grades 6-8 and is accepting applications for all other grades. Whether enrolling a kindergartner or transferring their children from another area school, interested parents are encouraged to find out all they can about this educational option.
“We invite all parents to come visit the school, take a tour and investigate whether George Washington Academy offers the best educational option for their child,” Greer said.
To learn more about GWA, visit the school website or call 435-673-2232.
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