Two south metro school districts that have been experimenting with programs that let students learn at their own pace are taking different approaches to expanding that concept.
Both Lakeville and Farmington have opened new “progressive schools” in recent years for families that want to enroll. Such schools emphasize giving students a choice in what they study and allowing kids to progress at their own pace, rather than organizing them by grades.
The schools have been deemed successful by their school boards, with enrollment and interest strong enough to not only continue offering them, but to expand.
But while Farmington is adding grade levels to its Gateway Academy next fall, Lakeville’s Impact Academy is putting growth on hold. Lakeville plans to study issues like location and transportation before moving Impact into its own building in 2016-17.
At Farmington’s Gateway, which serves 70 students in grades four through six, kids complete projects and use technology, including online lessons, to learn. Teachers act as advisers to guide students.
In Lakeville, Impact Academy has 180 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school emphasizes hands-on community service projects.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” said Laura Pierce, Farmington’s director of innovative programming. “Our intent is to grow the school slowly and purposefully to meet the students’ needs.”
So far, 82 students are enrolled for next year, she said.
This has also been a strong year for Impact, as evidenced by a waiting list of 40 students, said Marilynn Smith, principal of Orchard Lake Elementary, where Impact occupies the former media center.
The Lakeville school board’s approval of eventual expansion “provides an endpoint and an answer” for parents who wanted to plan for the future, she said. “It allows us to find the best fit long-term in terms of a location.”
A committee is looking at the district’s facilities and will finish by summer. The goal is to find a place that can be remodeled into the open, flexible space the school requires. The board has given Impact a $500,000 renovation budget, Smith said.
Farmington officials considered finding a new space for Gateway, too, but decided its current home — several rooms in the district’s Instructional Service Center — was the best fit.
When the Farmington district created Gateway, one of its aims was “creating a school that completely aligns to our [district’s] strategic plan,” said Pierce.
The plan calls for embracing new ideas, encouraging collaboration, helping kids find their passion and personalizing learning environments.
Pierce said the school and its staff of three advisers, or teachers, are always adjusting to new challenges because “every one of our students is unique in themselves.”
Tera Lee, a board member whose son is enrolled at Gateway, said the school has already adapted, making changes throughout the year. For instance, students now get to choose their adviser, and the school has implemented a new online math program, she said.
She said she is glad her son can stay at Gateway through middle school if he chooses.
The school continues to receive calls from other districts that are curious about Gateway Academy, Pierce said.
This was the second year for Impact, which added fourth and fifth grades this year.
The Lakeville school board supported the Impact Academy concept and its growth, but stopped short of expanding Impact to fill the whole Orchard Lake building. That project came with a $600,000 price tag, said Jim Skelly, board member.
“Everybody’s at a different place when it comes to Impact Academy,” Skelly said. “People are going to have to compromise.”
Committees will decide where the school should be located and whether to pay for student transportation. The district also plans to come up with criteria to measure if the program is successful, said Judy Keliher, board member.
But by many measures, supporters say Impact is already a success.
“I think [parents] like the option to let their kids learn at their own skill level,” Keliher. “It doesn’t box them in.”