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Grass Valley Charter School noted as an Expeditionary Learning Mentor School

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    Ben Smith

Grass Valley Charter School, a kindergarten through eighth grade charter school within the public Grass Valley School District, has been designated an Expeditionary Learning Mentor School for the 2011-12 academic year.

Expeditionary Learning is a nonprofit organization that advocates for education reform and the formation of new educational institutions based on its model of teaching.

Grass Valley Charter Principal Brian Martinez described the expeditionary model as thematic teaching, which strives to have students meet content standards through experience, as opposed to just reading about them.

“It often involves going out into the field and getting a hands-on experience,” he said.

Some of those experiences include a presentation on reopening the Idaho Maryland Mine and developing a flower guide to Bridgeport trails, among many others, Martinez said.

Grass Valley Charter aims to engage learners as partners in the educational process, said Debra Pinto, the schools' Expeditionary Learning designer.

“It's a school-wide reform model that touches on all pieces of teaching, character education and best practice teaching and assessment,” she said.

Based on Grass Valley Charter's test scores, some of the best in Nevada County, as well as a demonstrated successful implementation of the expeditionary learning model, the mentor school award recognizes the school as one of the top 17 performing schools in Expeditionary Learning's national network of 165 schools in 30 states.

As a mentor school, Grass Valley Charter will host professional residencies, showcase best practices, and play an active role in bringing all EL schools to the same high level of performance.

“They really are worthy of attention,” said Lili Brown, chief advancement officer of Expeditionary Learning.

Grass Valley Charter formed in 1993, when it was housed in a portable structure on the campus of Hennessy School, with only about 130 students, Martinez estimated. The schools' current enrollment is more than 400 students, Martinez expects it to top 500 in the coming years - something rare as Nevada County school enrollment numbers continue to drop.

“I think the waiting list and demand are directly correlated to success of the (Expeditionary Learning) model,” Martinez said.

After outgrowing the portable structure at Hennessy, Grass Valley Charter moved its pre-elementary through fifth grade classes to the campus of the former Bell Hill School. And this year the school needed more room and moved its middle school and home-study students back to the Hennessy campus.

The California Department of Education approved Nevada Joint Union High School District's charter application for the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning, the first high school of its kind in the state. The district has already hired four educators and will open classes for 60 ninth grade students and 60 10th grade students for the 2012-13 school year, Martinez said.

The location of where those students will be taught will be announced in December, Martinez said.

“There is a hope that it would all be on the same campus,” he said.

Ideally, the new high school charter will be housed at Hennessy, Martinez said, allowing all Grass Valley Expeditionary Learning to be on the same campus.

A statement from the national Expeditionary Learning network notes that Grass Valley Charter has consistently melded high academic performance, quality character education, with high student engagement.

“Expeditionary Learning's Mentor Schools stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the highest performing schools in the nation because of their students' academic achievement, college readiness skills, and deep engagement in learning,” Scott Hartl, president and CEO of Expeditionary Learning, said in the statement. “(Mentor Schools) will be an invaluable resource for our entire network.”

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