As schools around the Island sort their plans for reopening, the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School will begin the school year with a remote curriculum fitted to its mission of project-based and individualized learning.
According to a letter sent to the charter school community detailing its remote learning plan, the school will open on Sept. 15 from afar, gradually bringing students back for daylong, in-person orientation sessions at its West Tisbury campus later in the month.
Head of school Peter Steedman said he plans to hold off bringing students back to the classroom in a more permanent capacity until Oct. 2, when he will reassess, according to state health guidelines. Any classes held on-site will take place entirely outdoors in tents Mr. Steedman said, adding that younger students and those in the school’s special education program will have priority for returning in person.
“We want to really be intentional and thoughtful about moving into a hybrid model,” Mr. Steedman said in a phone conversation with the Gazette this week. “We wanted to allow the Island to take a breath.”
But with plans for in-person teaching still uncertain, this summer educators at the charter school have focused on how to provide the highest possible quality remote education.
Throughout the year, students will engage in regular Zoom classes as well as independent projects that will take place off-screen. Staple programs of the curriculum, like the school’s two-week project week where students research and execute projects of their choosing, will take place online. And the school’s signature morning meetings will be broadcast virtually.
Above all, however, Mr. Steedman said the school will continue to make individualized learning plans for each of its students — called personal education plans.
“We’re a project-based learning school . . . It’s part of our [charter] that we have to provide these opportunities for students,” Mr. Steedman said.
An unexpected benefit, remote learning will also offer educators a chance to provide new, dynamic learning experiences previously unavailable, like weekly outdoor expeditions for middle and high school students.
“We are very aware that although the state is encouraging us of course to have a full day in school, nine to three, we want to make sure that we are building in experiences where kids are not sitting in front of the screen all day,” Mr. Steedman said.
The school has partnered with local nonprofits like the Polly Hill Arboretum and Island Grown Initiative to facilitate the outdoor educational activities, and already has plans to host lessons with Woods Hole scientist Dawn Moran about ancient fishing practices.
“We’re going to keep people safe, that’s our number one commitment, but if we can push the educational boundaries, we’re going to do that,” Mr. Steedman said.
Remote plans at the charter school were made based on specific community needs, he said. The final r-opening decision was made by the school’s board, based on interviews with families in the community and extensive research from subcommittees of teachers, administrators and parents.
“We really tried to reach out for families who had a range of experiences — families who really loved the remote learning because some kids actually really thrived in that remote learning environment, and other families who want the opportunity to connect with nature, in some way,” Mr. Steedman said. “We were trying to balance that.”
The school also worked closely with superintendent of the public schools Matthew D’Andrea and advising physician Dr. Zack to finalize the health components of the plan. “We’re trying to really speak with one voice,” Mr. Steedman said.
The charter school has seen a modest uptick in its application rates this year, mirroring similar trends at independent schools in the Cape and Islands area. The school will enroll 180 students in the fall, with an additional 20 students on the wait list — double last year, which saw around 10 applicants on a wait list.
Though Mr. Steedman said the year hasn’t brought substantial changes in overall enrollment, the middle school and the 5-6 grade levels have seen the most significant increase. The school has also received additional interest from students in the Falmouth area and those with residences on the Island who have chosen to stay, he said.
“We’ve been around for 25 years. In the end, people are coming to us based on relationships,” Mr. Steedman said of the charter school, attributing the added interest to the quality of teaching at the school. “People want to have that kind of relationship, maybe now more than ever,” he said.
With enrollment up, Mr. Steedman said the school has no plans to pause its long-term plan to expand. In addition to celebrating 25 years, the charter school was recently named a candidate for the International Baccalaureate program and will host its five-year charter renewal visit this year.
“It’s a busy time at the charter school, but certainly a celebratory exciting time as well,” Mr. Steedman said.