After a decade, Arcadia Charter School still has a passion for projects

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2013 - 2:27 PM

Arcadia Charter School, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has evolved into a creative incubator that encourages students to pursue their interests.

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Teacher Bob Gregory-Bjorklund pointed at two students to follow his lead during an African drumming class at Arcadia Charter School in Northfield.

Photo: Courtney Perry , Special to the Star Tribune

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A decade ago, Mary Gutfleisch made a bold choice: She switched schools her senior year, leaving a public high school to attend a small, brand-new charter school.

She wanted the chance to weave her interests in art and theater into her education, which the school’s self-directed focus would let her do, she said.

Today, Gutfleisch makes a living off YouTube videos she creates. She credits the projects she worked on that year, including shooting a music video, with helping her get started.

“It was really a crash course in what later became freelance work,” she said.

She returned to her old school, formerly ARTech but now called Arcadia Charter School, two weeks ago to teach students about drawing and brainstorming. The same week, Arcadia held its 10-year-anniversary celebration.

Now in its 11th year, Arcadia has grown from the brainchild of a group of progressive Northfield parents into a financially stable school with steady enrollment — a rare feat for a charter school.

Arcadia has evolved over the years, gradually learning what works and what doesn’t. Now, there’s more built-in support and structure to ensure that students succeed, said Director Ryan Krominga.

Initially, the school had a purely project-based philosophy, in which learning was largely self-directed. Today, Arcadia — with 125 students in grades 6 through 12 — has a hybrid format, combining regular core classes with interdisciplinary projects students pick to meet state standards, Krominga said.

“When you walk in, you can see it’s a very different environment,” Krominga said.

In addition to several classrooms, a multi-purpose room and a theater, there’s lots of open space where students work both individually and together. Many spaces can be arranged to conform to that day’s activity. Students have six periods, but there’s also flexibility in scheduling, Krominga said.

Signs of creative juices

There’s evidence of students’ initiative throughout Arcadia. A student-built greenhouse sits outside, for example, and solar panels act as awnings on the back of the school, providing alternative energy.

In middle school, things are fairly structured and focused on building academic skills. In high school, students have more freedom, completing projects in both core subjects and to fulfill elective credits, Krominga said.

Some subjects, however, like math or grammar, require a traditional classroom approach so students can learn sequential skills, Krominga said.

For any charter school, staying afloat financially means attracting and retaining a steady stream of students, Krominga said. Arcadia has been able to do that because of several elements that set it apart.

One is the school’s size, said Scott Grave, a language arts teacher since 2004. “I think the most appealing factor for me and a lot of kids is the size,” he said. “It’s such a close-knit community.”

A social contract

The school is also focused on building relationships and respect between staff and students, Grave said.

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