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Charter school could solve crowding issues in Windham

WINDHAM — Concerned about overcrowding in some of the schools in the Windham district, a group of parents and residents are hoping to open Windham Academy — slated to be a charter school for grades one through eight — in time for the 2015-2016 school year.

An informational meeting on the school, held at the Windham Senior Center Thursday evening, drew a crowd of approximately 60 people.

Members of the Educational Choices Foundation (ECF), a newly-formed Windham organization, said they are currently in the process of preparing the charter’s application to submit to the state Department of Education (DOE).

ECF Chairman Sean Donahue said the group’s mission isn’t to compete with the local public schools, but to simply offer parents and students in Windham area another educational option. Donahue described the ECF as “ambassadors that are trying to bring this school forward,” and stressed that if the Windham Academy becomes a reality, the school would be overseen by an elected board of trustees, not the ECF.

“We have a great community here, but there are lots of new families coming to town,” said Donahue. “And we have a wonderful school system here, but we suffer from overcrowding.”

Donahue noted that other solutions to the district’s space shortage have previously fallen short. Plans to build an additional school were rejected by voters twice in recent years, and this past year’s closure of the modular classrooms at Golden Brook School has forced local school officials to take some drastic measures, including bringing some of the district’s third graders to the high school for their daily lessons.

“We’ve also looked into bringing the eighth graders to the high school, but experts have advised against this,” Donahue said. “So a town-sponsored charter school is another option.”

If approved, the charter school could be eligible to receive $500,000 in federal start-up funds, he added — funds that could be used to construct the facility at a yet-to-be determined location.

While some charter schools are state-authorized rather than district-authorized, having local authorization would allow the school to give Windham students preferential enrollment: an option Donahue said would be “most applicable to our needs right now” as it would potentially free up some much-needed seats in the district’s schools.“Ideally, this would be a partnership between the charter and the Windham school district,” he said. “We want to share ideas, share facilities when we can, and be an open, cooperative partnership.”ECF member Chris Baker said he moved to Windham four years ago with his wife, hoping to start a family. “We knew this school district was a fantastic one,” Baker said. “Now we’ve been blessed with a daughter and another one on the way.”Now a parent, Baker said he’s excited about the unique mission that the Windham Academy would offer, which he said would focus on in-depth subject mastery, real-world laboratory experiences and local, national and global understanding. A heavy emphasis would be made on STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.Working with each student at their respective levels, the curriculum would incorporate familiar materials each age group can relate to: using items like Lego blocks, for instance, to teach engineering foundations.

“I do believe this charter school would be a fantastic addition to the town of Windham,” Baker said.

A nine-member board of trustees would oversee Windham Academy operations, with that board to be comprised of parents, citizens, a professional education expert and at least one Windham School Board member.

“It’s crucial we work together with the school district to make this successful,” Baker said.

He noted that another charter school, the Academy for Science & Design in Nashua, is currently the state’s leading middle and high school. The state-sanctioned school enrolls about 450 students, Baker said, with another 200 on a waiting list. Officials from the Nashua school have shared their knowledge with the ECF and have offered to advise locals in the creation of the Windham Academy’s curriculum.

Also sharing his knowledge in the process is Windham High School teacher Scott Kukshtel, who advises the district’s award-winning robotics team, the Windham Windup.

“His advice and guidance has been very helpful in designing our curriculum,” Baker said of Kukshtel. “He’s an expert in STEM education.”

Kukshtel suggested Windham Academy’s facilities should include specialized classrooms for chemistry, biology, math, engineering and robotics, while “maker spaces” could give students a chance to put their knowledge into practice.

“This allows the kids to come in and explore new materials in a safe environment,” he said, noting that the new Academy could also be used by community and neighborhood organizations outside of regular school hours.

Windham Academy officials are currently seeking the local school board’s recommendation in the process of obtaining the state DOE’s approval.

Once that happens, a public referendum will go on Windham’s March 2015 ballot. If approved, the Windham Academy will seek 501c3 status in April 2015, with the school aiming to open that fall. “We have a lot of challenges ahead,” Donahue said. “But once we get a referendum approved, we can begin searching for an appropriate facility in our town.”

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