Charter school boasts high test scores, innovative learning methods

Black River Public School students perform above state and local averages

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Black River Public School in Holland, Mich. offers an innovative education to 420 students. Parents and teachers boast of the school's emphasis on foreign language, hands-on projects, thriving art programs, and Advanced Placement courses.

Black River Public School, established in Holland, Mich. in 1996, is the kind of charter school parents are looking for when they take their children out of the traditional public school setting. It offers innovative programs and a unique educational experience that is spurring high student achievement. And that makes parents very happy.

So happy, in fact, that student enrollment has nearly doubled since the school opened in the 1996-1997 school year.

Black River's 420 fourth- through twelfth-grade students attend classes in a grand, marble-floored historic building, donated by BASF, a worldwide chemical company, in 1999.

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The school, chartered by Grand Valley State University (GVSU), uses a college preparatory curriculum, emphasizes foreign languages, schedules longer class periods, offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and gives students the chance to engage in a host of hands-on activities.

Black River's curriculum consists of core classes including English, mathematics, history, government, natural sciences, musical and performing arts, and foreign language. All core class sizes are kept small, between 18 and 20 students, and are held in 85-minute sessions, instead of the traditional 40- to 50-minute class. Graduation requirements are more stringent than state requirements and include a three-year course of study in high school Spanish, community service participation, and a hands-on "capstone experience" for all students.

In the capstone experience, which is completed the last four weeks of the school year, students design and execute a major project which may include international travel, "job shadowing" (in which students go to work with a real-world professional), or a variety of other real-world educational experiences. All projects are presented at an annual showcase at the end of the year.

Black River parents and school officials say the capstone experience, which they refer to as "Project Term," provides an excellent opportunity for the school to showcase student interests, teacher talents, and to increase parental and community involvement in the school.

"Project Term is four weeks of hands-on learning," Chief Administrative Officer David Angerer told Michigan Education Report. "Students do everything - projects have included chess classes, rebuilding engines, theatre workshops, space camp, trips to Spain, among other things. It allows teachers to share an interest and allows parents and community members to share their talents and assist with teaching the students."

Students in all grades participate in a variety of community service projects. Black River students have lent their talents to organizations including Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, local nursing homes, charity food drives, and other local charities. Curriculum requirements state that fourth- and fifth-graders must fulfill 15 hours of unpaid community service, sixth- through eighth-graders must fulfill 20 hours, and ninth- through twelfth-graders must fulfill 60 hours in order to graduate.

The school also encourages high school students to take AP courses and tests for college credit before they graduate. It offers AP courses in biology, calculus, chemistry, English literature, European history, physics, psychology and U.S. history. More than half of the senior students at Black River participate in the advanced courses; and, of the students taking national AP tests last year, 80 percent scored well enough to obtain college credit in the subjects tested.

The innovative curriculum has proven effective for Black River, with student scores on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests posting higher than state and local averages in nearly every subject area. Black River students also perform well on college entrance exams.

In addition, the school offers an excellent education for students with special needs. Approximately 15 percent of Black River students require special education services, a higher ratio than the state average. The school maintains small class sizes, dedicated staff, and resource rooms for these students.

Parents attribute Black River's success to rigorous academics and an innovative curriculum.

"We visited Black River because we were curious about exactly what made it different from a traditional public school," one parent expressed in a letter to the school. "We learned that, although Black River is fully accredited and meets or exceeds all State requirements, it is not tied to the local school district's requirements for curriculum, textbooks or scheduling."

"That is why they can schedule longer class time and tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of their achievement-oriented philosophy," the parent continued. "The Black River philosophy works - you can see it in the enthusiasm of the staff and the kids and in the overall academic results."

Others in the education community agree that Black River's teachers are accomplishing notable feats. The Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA) recently awarded Black River teacher Fran Oleson its 2002 Teacher of the Year award at its annual conference.

"Oleson's fourth-grade students scored well above state MEAP averages, with 90 percent passing math and 80 percent passing reading tests," MAPSA explained in a press release. "Among fifth graders, nearly 90 percent passed each of the science, writing and social studies tests. Gregory J. Dykhouse, the school's director of academics, said many students had to progress more than one year academically in order to pass those tests."

The association touts Oleson as a model for the education community, and an excellent representative for charter schools.

"Fran Oleson demonstrates the ways in which charter school teachers are making education come alive for students statewide," MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry said. "She is an example of what happens when you give quality teachers the freedom to do what they know is necessary for students to learn."

Black River officials say autonomy for the school and its teachers is very important to student success and must be defended.

Angerer explains that though his school "fills out every piece of regulatory paper the public schools do," the school also must comply with regulations from its charter authorizer (GVSU), often producing a mountain of paperwork that detracts from educating students.

"You feel like you're jumping through hoops, not helping kids," he said. "Sometimes we can't focus resources on student needs, but are mired in reporting requirements."

Angerer admits, however, that GVSU is a "very responsible authorizer" and assists the school in complying with a myriad of state regulations.

One of the least flexible and hardest regulations to swallow, Angerer explained, is the requirement that the school must hire state-certified teachers. He says the rule limits the school's ability to hire experts in their fields - such as physicists or math experts who do not have Michigan teaching certificates.

He laments, "College professors can teach teachers for 20 years but can't teach here [at Black River] without going back to school for years to become certified."

Despite the ever-increasing regulatory burden, however, Black River continues to excel at providing an outstanding education to its students. It is providing a strong example to other charter schools, and giving traditional public schools the stiff competition that school-choice advocates claim is needed to improve public education across the board.

For more information on Black River Public School, visit www.blackriver.spfs.k12.mi.us. For more information on the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, visit www.charterschools.org.