SOUTH SALT LAKE – For three years, advocates for education reform and underserved populations have been quietly plowing the ground for the Utah International Charter School.
The public charter school, patterned after successful, established international schools in Harlem, N.Y. and Oakland, Calif., is set to open in August. The school, located at the former Hartvigsen School at 350 E. 3605 South, has secured start-up funding, a grant for teacher training and is hiring staff.
The greatest challenge before principal Angela Rowland, former vice principal and dean of students at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, is encouraging families and children to enroll their children in the school for students in grades 7-10. The school aims to serve newly arrived immigrants, refugees and native English speakers who seek small class sizes, rigor and a relevant educational experience.
“The school is open to everyone because it’s a public charter school and because we want it to be diverse,” Rowland said.
Board member Al Church, who retired after eight years as principal of the public charter Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, said the concept was born, in part, to help address traditional public schools’ inability to serve students who need more one-on-one attention.
“Traditional content-driven high school teachers have crowded classrooms, they’re facing adjustments to testing and adjustments to the Common Core. Throw in a population that requires much more individual help, I think it’s a tough fit for large comprehensive high schools to figure out how to integrate those kids into the academic world,” said Church, who was a long-time public school educator and administrator.
While Rowland and Church emphasize that the public charter school is open to all learners, it will have a strong emphasis on reading, writing and spoken English.
All children need to master academic English to succeed in school and to gain admission to college, Rowland said.
Depending on their background, English mastery can be a daunting challenge for refugee children, said Gerald Brown, director of the state Office of Refugee Services.
“The older the child is when they arrive here, the harder it is for them to do well in school. We place children in school on an age-appropriate basis. So a 12-year-old who hasn’t been educated will be placed in an American school with other 12-year-olds and it’s very, very hard,” said Brown.
Failing to master English has many negative consquences. English learners have the highest dropout rates statewide, according to Utah State Office of Education statistics. Their high school graduation rates are 30 percent lower than all students, although both measures have slightly improved in recent years.
Another selling point of Utah International is its commitment to “cultural competency,” Rowland said.
“It’s really about teachers understanding cultural differences, appreciating that and liking that and not expecting every student to act the same way. It’s wanting to know from students about their first language, about the countries they came from, about their cultural backgrounds and knowledge and not just pretending everyone is the same,” Rowland said.
Students will work on projects that integrate math, history, language arts and science in each unit of study. Students will have many opportunities to collaborate with peers.
Teachers will use differentiated instruction methods, meaning educators will meet students at their individual education levels.
“At our school we differentiate all the time, every day, every lesson, every minute,” Rowland said. The school has received a grant from the Daniels Foundation to fund teacher training.
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