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.

In September, the students create a social contract with one another, laying out ground rules for how they will work together, said Sarah Wallis, an art teacher.

And many students come specifically because of project-based learning, Wallis said. "I think it's a huge draw for us. … There's buy-in from kids. Kids like to do what they're interested in."

At Arcadia, seniors are required to complete a culminating project. Topics vary widely, and most are ambitious.

"With senior projects, our hope is that they're working toward a passion," Krominga said.

Tammy Prichard, a writing teacher whose son graduated from Arcadia last year, said her son's project was on Peter Pan. He created a dying fairy sculpture with a light bulb inside, and researched the psychology of the "Peter Pan syndrome," she said.

One student built his own cartooning table and animated his drawings, while another researched how to replant forests.

Another "huge thing that sets us apart," Wallis said, is May term, during which students take a two- to three-week course on a specific — and sometimes quirky — subject. Last year, her May term class was on visual spectacles, including masks, puppets and parades.

Krominga said that many different kinds of students choose Arcadia for many different reasons.

"I would really say that [Arcadia] is for any kind of kid," Krominga said. "It's all about what structures you put in place to help a student succeed."

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283