The whole point of ACCEL Academy in Mobile — Alabama’s first charter school — was to flip the graduation statistics for public high schools from mediocre to superb. Now in its third year, ACCEL believes it’s achieving that goal.
When education proponents studied the public schools, “In Mobile, they saw 1,300 students not graduating on time and only half of the students that did graduate really had the skills needed,” says Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of the charter school. “The community was learning there was a big gap between supply and demand for graduates with skills needed to enter the workforce.
“In our second year, we doubled the number of graduates, and in the third, we continued the momentum,” says Newell. “The commission has just allowed us to charter a middle school, for 6th to 12th grades. The population of the middle school will begin, in 2021-22, at 300 students and over the next four years grow to 780 students.”
At the end of its second year, in 2018, 45 students graduated from ACCEL, with 63% continuing on a post-secondary pathway — that is, either a 2- or 4-year college, the military or joining the workforce. In 2019, 92 ACCEL students graduated, and 89% were accepted to a 2- or 4-year college.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but managed separately from the main public school system. The new type of school was first made possible in 2015, with enactment of the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, which designated the Alabama Public Charter School Commission as an independent state agency whose mission is to authorize public charter schools and see that they do what they promise.
Each charter school has its own instructional models, based on what its community support group feels is most needed. They get state and federal funding like other public schools, but not local ad valorem taxes earmarked for education, which average about 15% of public school funding. Local fundraising, grants and philanthropy make up the difference.
There are only four other charter schools in Alabama — University Charter, in Livingston, in west Alabama; LEAD Academy, in west Montgomery; and both Legacy Prep and I3, in Birmingham. But ACCEL, in Mobile, was the first.
“Our school really reflects the birth of the charter school movement in Alabama,” says Newell. “With the support of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, which has been working with us to improve the quality of public school, in the school year 2016 and 2017, we received the first charter in the state of Alabama.”
Charter school advocates in Mobile focused on high school students who graduated with no path forward — no plans for further education and no entry point into the workforce.
“They saw that part of the way to close that gap was to create innovative school models for those students who were disengaged, not seeing the relevancy of what was being taught, who were falling behind and needed smaller class sizes,” says Newell.
So, what it is that ACCEL does to get students interested?
“On the engagement side, rather than sitting in traditional classrooms in which the role of the teacher was to be at the front of the class lecturing to the class, we needed a lot more workshop models of teaching that reached students with essential questions and ideas and hands-on and group projects, opportunities for engineering, tinkering and testing, to see the purpose of the learning,” says Newell.
“Also, if a student was not ready to go on, we would not just move them along. We would let kids move faster in some subjects and slower in others. So, it was more individualized, which also helps with engagement.
“Instead of class sizes of 30-plus students, we try to make it 20 to 21. It makes a huge difference, with more attention to individual needs. It makes for the opportunity to work in groups, small groups, and it allows the students to grow at their own pace. Some achieved a full year of language arts in a quarter, some a year of growth in math in a quarter. Our model focused on creating that individual successful student.”
Critical to making that model work — engaging students early on — says Newell, is getting teachers who are similarly engaged. And it starts with paying them a comparable salary.
“We are a public school, and we have elected to offer salaries to be the same or higher than other public schools, with the same health care benefits, and we even offer bonuses at the end of the year if funds are available.
“Our teachers come to the table extremely qualified, with years of experience and advanced degrees,” says Newell, who himself is a graduate of LeFlore High School in Mobile, the University of South Alabama, and who has a doctorate in educational leadership from Harvard University.
“On average, our teachers have five to six years of experience and a master’s degree or higher, and they really have a passion for their young people. We are always driven by the quality of our teachers.”
The money for such teachers, says Newell, comes from choosing not to spend money on other things that seem traditional at the average public school.
“You have to use the resources that you have. We don’t have athletic programs, a stadium, all those things for which we don’t have the money. We don’t go in that direction. Instead, we make choices, directing resources to the teaching classroom rather than extracurricular activities or administrative overhead, which we keep as small as possible.”
If there is a report card on the mission ACCEL Academy staked out for itself, it has to be measured in students retained, graduated and who go on to an academic or career path. And ACCEL is happy to show that report card that doubles the number of graduates year to year.
Has the virus crisis slowed that momentum?
“Even during the COVID challenges, we have been trying to live out our mission by offering in-person classes, although virtual classes and night school have been part of our program anyway,” says Newell. “We include in-person, social distancing in classroom, teachers’ masks and face shields.
“If you can’t come to class, you can still attend through the Zoom platform. You can interact with peers and a teacher and participate while moving forward, not just doing what the computer says to do: We always live our mission, even in the virtual classroom.
“We have always had blended learning. Students have had laptops, and they really help students learn at their own pace, so we were in a good position to continue instruction through the pandemic. We didn’t see a decrease in our population.”