ST. GEORGE – It is no secret that students of today learn differently from students just a decade ago. In the new digital age, information is easier to access and more available than it has ever been. But though the world’s facts and figures can be carried around in the palm of the hand, independent critical thinking and communication skills are necessary to achieve success in higher education; unfortunately, these critical skills often fall by the wayside.
Enter: St. George Academy. St. George Academy is a tuition-free charter school opening in the fall for the 2017-18 school year. The academy is enrolling students in 8th-11th grade for this first full academic year.
But what sets St. George Academy apart from any other public middle school or high school?
“Nothing and, of course, everything,” St. George Academy Director David Jones said.
As a general rule, as a public charter school St. George Academy is held to the same state standards and practices as all public schools. In order to offer high school credit, the academy must be accredited through the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools and students are required to participate in the statewide testing programs. Students will also be instructed in all of the core subjects.
But many of the similarities end there.
The mission of St. George Academy is to provide a real college preparatory education through an academically focused experience that encourages deep, active learning, critical thinking, diverse curriculum and a hands-on approach to gaining knowledge.
At the academy, Jones said, they hope to expose students to a learning environment that is more analogous to a small college than a high school.
Community Outreach and Student Activities Coordinator Nicole Hancock said:
I think one of the things that we come across is that people initially hear ‘college prep’ and they think that this is going to provide their students an opportunity to get good at taking those tests that get them into a university. And while, yes, certainly that will happen, more importantly, it prepares them for the university experience.
Citing her own experience, Hancock said that she got really good grades in high school and did just fine academically but when she reached college, she struggled in her first semester.
“I was completely unprepared for the expectations, the rigor of the classes and the volume of work that I was required to do in order to do well in a college setting,” Hancock said, adding, “not just for the coursework but for the ability to engage and interact with my professors.”
The goal then of St. George Academy is to not only prepare students to enter college but also to thrive there, Hancock said.
To that end, students at the academy will be encouraged to develop valuable communication skills – both written and oral – and to exercise initiative in shaping the community within the school.
Additionally, much like a university experience, the students at St. George Academy will be influential in organizing their own clubs and extracurricular activities.
This is what Jones calls a student-driven approach to creating communities in the school. This method gives students the confidence to use their voice and put their ideas into action. Under the guidance of a faculty member, he said, students will be able to learn organization, project management, leadership and other valuable college and life skills.
A lot of this can be accomplished because, by comparison to a traditional public school, the academy is much smaller in size. It is a design which allows for greater recognition and understanding of all the students and faculty, Jones said.
“Nobody is going to slip through the cracks at St. George Academy.”
Even the structure of the building is designed to encourage student and faculty interaction. A large common student area similar to a university student union, ample outdoor space and classrooms designed to be easily modified to meet each faculty member’s needs are all valuable elements of the school.
And uniting all the elements, the essential component for the entire vision of St. George Academy, is the faculty, Jones said.
With their passion for teaching and their ability to build programs, Jones said, the faculty will deliver an educational process that will help their students blossom.
The knowledge and skills these teachers possess will be passed on to the students in an active-learning environment, Hancock said, one that allows the adults to guide and the students to shine.
“That’s the kind of atmosphere that I think will be really fantastic here at St. George Academy where you have a faculty that’s invested in the idea of not ‘let me show you what I can do so you can emulate it’ but ‘let me help you figure out what you can do,'” she said.
Faculty will have the unique opportunity to build collaborative programs that cross departments and create opportunities for their subjects to build on one another, giving students a more cohesive educational experience.
Jones and Hancock both said that hiring staff has been an exciting experience. They have watched these educators share their passion and vision for teaching the students of today and tomorrow.
“These aren’t instructors who just want a job,” Hancock said. “These are educators who feel that this is their life’s work. They bring a level of competence, professionalism and passion that I have rarely seen in my experience with education. It’s really exciting to watch.”
All teachers are required to be accredited or working on accreditation through an approved program.
St. George Academy’s charter was approved in 2015, and the school is currently enrolling students entering 8th-11th grade for the 2017-18 school year.
The charter can be reviewed and enrollment can be completed online. Jones encourages parents and students to schedule a time to come visit the school and discuss any questions and concerns they might have.
“St. George Academy represents a big vision and a noble mission,” Jones said. “It is difficult to convey all of that in a website, which is why we love having families come tour the facility and spend time understanding how the academy can benefit their individual student. To that end, not only do we take a lot of time meeting with individual families, but we plan community events and fun engaging student activities to welcome the community into this space and see what we really have to offer.”
Hancock agreed, adding that she believes it is important to have a school like St. George Academy in Southern Utah.
“I’m very passionate about the vision and the mission of St. George Academy,” she said. “I’m really excited that we have options like this in our community.”
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