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Breaking down the walls of learning

Sauvie Island Academy finds its footing as place-based charter school


by: STOVER E. HARGER III - Students run to line up after recess at Sauvie Island Academy.At the Sauvie Island Academy charter school, the classroom is not enclosed within four walls.

With a mission of providing “place-based education,” — lessons often centered around the natural surroundings of Sauvie Island — the Scappoose School District-sponsored K-8 charter school is beginning to cement its place in the regional educational landscape.

In only its second year as a charter school, the former Sauvie Island Elementary School has evolved into a place where teachers embrace creative lesson plans and kids sometimes are unaware they are learning because they are having so much fun planting gardens, going on hikes or making maps, said school Director Darla Meeuwsen.by: STOVER E. HARGER III - At lunch time, kids happily dine on baked fish and local produce. Sometimes island residents will even visit to enjoy the home-cooked food themselves.

“Learning doesn’t happen just in these walls,” she said.

From as far out as Clatskanie and Hillsboro, students come to Sauvie Island Academy to engage in hands-on learning, go on regular “out and abouts,” and eat freshly-cooked lunches made up of local food sources.

But the school has had some growing pains, namely in its bursting enrollment and the relatively small school grounds. A portable building was recently plopped down on campus to house the older students, giving some needed breathing room for the school.

Some more relief came this month in the form of a U.S. Department of Education charter school grant. Sixty-eight charter schools across the nation applied, and Sauvie Island Academy was one of 18 approved for funding. The school will receive $461,699 over two years to help update technology, purchase supplies and fund professional development for teachers.by: STOVER E. HARGER III - Sauvie Island Academy Director Darla Meeuwsen in her office.

Meeuwsen said a number of volunteers helped work on the grant application and many parents wrote letters of support.

On a recent school day, students in math class walk around the classroom measuring items and each other as part of their “bridges” curriculum. At Sauvie Island Academy “It’s OK to be out of your seat,” Meeuwsen said.

Down the hall, the fourth-grade class was studying the phases of the moon and keeping track in a journal. They recently attended what the school dubs an “out and about,” another name for a field trip that doesn’t have the connotation those trips sometimes have of escaping from the classroom for a day.

“They are outside, having an educational experience,” said teacher Nancy Fisher.

While the learning flows from the educators, sometimes it’s the students who take the role of teacher. Meeuwsen said students can become so excited about their studies they will embrace the lessons away from the classroom. After learning about the importance of waste reduction and composting, a group of kids took its teachers to task after spotting a garbage can in the teachers’ lounge which had an errant banana peel inside, instead of in the compost bin.

“They were all over us,” Meeuwsen laughed.

But that’s the point, she said. To make learning a way of life and not something that merely comes from textbooks and bland lectures.

And, at least according to Oregon’s report card rating system for public schools, the school’s efforts are paying off. Meeuwsen said she was pleased to see her school was ranked “outstanding” by the state based on students’ performance in math, reading and science during the 2011-12 school year.

Priority registration goes to students living on the island. The institution uses a lottery system each spring to enroll new students when there is room. A waiting list includes families from all across the county and beyond, eager for their children to take part in the often outdoor-focused learning at Sauvie Island Academy.

“[Sauvie Island Academy] built a sense of community across city lines,” Meeuwsen said.