Building, Staff Get Ready for Next Charter School

Joe Crawford waved his hand over a cozy space tucked in the back of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School. “This will be a lounge for students and staff,” he said of the room, equipped with a small kitchen. “We’ve ordered cushy sofas and chairs and coffee tables. We’re looking for a coffeehouse atmosphere.”
Crawford added, “There will be no faculty lounge.”

The walls are coming down at Next Charter School. While the chartered public high school will make its home in the former DEEP – Derry Early Education Program – quarters at Hood, the figurative walls between teacher and student, “school day” and after school, and what is curriculum will not exist, as Crawford, co-director Justin Krieger and their 30 inaugural students form their own learning community.

Crawford and Krieger, both assistant principals with a dozen years experience each, conducted a tour of their new facility this past week. While the furniture isn’t in yet – nor the students – the co-directors shared their vision for a different kind of public school.

The smallest rooms in the new quarters are Crawford’s and Krieger’s offices, but they don’t expect to be in them much. There’s a conference room, two small break-out rooms for small groups, and a main office with a sitting area where students and parents can discuss projects.

Three large, light-filled rooms will be the venue for “learning experiences,” or the core curriculum of science, math, English/language arts and Social Studies. These are based on competencies, “what you need to know and do,” Crawford said.

In a traditional school, the administration comes up with the course selection, “like a menu,” and the students choose from it, Crawford said. At Next, “the students are in the kitchen,” he said.
Krieger amplified, “In a traditional school, you earn a credit in English through a course, English 101. It lasts 180 days.” At Next, students strive for the same competencies, learning to read critically, to write in a series of arguments, to listen and speak in a public setting.

“But the kids work with us, determining how that will look for them,” he said. Krieger said, “They will earn the same number of credits as in any other public high school. But curriculum, most of the time, exists outside of the student. Here, we want them to be a part of it.” They are determined to keep Next small, capping future enrollment at 90 students and starting with 30. “This concept,” Crawford said, “will not work in a large organization.”

The staff is in place, Crawford said. He and Krieger will administer the program and also teach their specialties, Social Studies for Crawford and English for Krieger. Karen Woodes is the Administrative Assistant and already in place.

Andy Bengtson, a former Hood math teacher, was hired for math, and Emily Whalen, a science teacher from Pelham Middle School, will teach science. Rachel Griffith, an Americorps volunteer, will be one of the two “program support” staff members. That is similar to a paraprofessional, Crawford said, adding that they have yet to hire the second program support person. Griffith is a graduate of Brown University and is taking a year off before medical school, Crawford said.

Students will have their own entrance, separate from the Hood Middle School entrance, and they will start later than the traditional high school. “Research has shown that teenagers learn more effectively with a later start,” Crawford said. They did extensive research into charter schools, and the adolescent mind, before being appointed co-directors.

They will have a morning meeting, where they air concerns and give high fives for work well done. The morning meeting is also a place for teachers to model public speaking skills, and for students to eventually attain them. There’s a morning “learning experience” followed by lunch, which students and faculty eat together. The students do a reflective journal piece right after lunch, attend another “learning experience” and wrap up the day in a small group with the adviser they will have all through high school.

But if the school day spills over into afternoon or evening, so be it. “Many times I’ve been in class and thought, ‘Oh, I wish we could have done that, but it’s at 4 p.m.,'” Krieger observed.
And no space in Next is off-limits to students.

Neither man is angry with the traditional public school system. “I’ve seen it work for a great many kids,” said Krieger, most recently assistant principal at West Running Brook Middle School. “But I’ve also seen it not work for a great many kids.”

All children can learn, Krieger said, and “we have an obligation to make it work for all kids. Their success depends on it – success for the individual, for the family, for the community.”
Crawford added, “We believe strongly that there is more than one way to solve a problem. This is a more flexible, individual approach to learning.”

He said, “We are not casting blame on the system.” Krieger contributed, “We did not get into this because we believe it’s the answer to everything. Charter schools are part of an answer to an existing problem.”
Crawford also disputed a perception that charter schools cherry-pick for students. “We are not creating haves and have-nots,” he said. “If there are more applications than slots, we hold a lottery.” That’s how the current 30 students got in, he said. The school has a waitlist of 12.

The men smiled when asked if they would be headmasters, principals, or keep the title of directors.
“It’s whatever people want to call us,” Crawford said.