Derry’s Next Charter School Looks Ahead to New Year

With a new space to call home and a successful year behind them, the co-directors of Next Charter School are looking forward to the coming academic year.

Justin Krieger and Joe Crawford, sitting in their new teaching space at West Running Brook Middle School, looked back over what went well in the first year of Next and forward to how to improve the learning and community experience they foster in their small, tightly knit organization.

Next opened its doors last fall to 30 students seeking an alternative to the traditional high school environment. It is part of the Derry Cooperative School District but with small class sizes and a different approach to learning and teaching, it seeks to offer new ways of reaching students.

The school began its life at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, but a decision made recently by the Derry School Board to move the Derry Early Education Program (DEEP) back into its original space forced Next into West Running Brook (see story page 1).

Krieger and Crawford are taking the change in stride and looking at the positives of their new space. They’re in the red pod at West Running Brook, which consists of several classroom spaces around a common area. That common space is expected to be a big benefit for students this year.

The move went well, according to the co-directors, as the district moved furniture and supplies in four days and without prompting, students and families offered their help to make the transition a smooth one.

Before the move, students had been utilizing whatever space was available to work on self-directed projects. At the end of the school year teachers presented opportunities for extra summer work and many took that on.

That kind of self-direction is important to the school, explained the co-directors. Next is a school of choice, as students don’t have to go there, and hand in hand with that idea is the need for students to take on much of the responsibility for their learning.

While teachers are present every step of the way, how kids reach predetermined competencies has a lot to do with their initiative.

And how are the kids handling that responsibility? Like its diverse student body, how the students have dealt with that increased responsibility has differed widely.

“It’s a culture shift for them. It’s a shift from completing things to learning things. It’s a shift from trying to move away from dependence to independence, and all those things are going to take different amounts of times for different kids, but it’s still a direction we’re committed to,” said Krieger.

“I think we put students in a difficult spot this last year in that they had to begin to take some ownership,” Crawford added. “And for some it was really difficult, and I would argue that that’s a good thing. Learning isn’t supposed to be easy. Learning is difficult in nature, that’s why we change.”

He said some students made tremendous growth from early passivity, but others continue to struggle.

“That’s one of the big life lessons we want to instill in students – this idea of self-efficacy, that success is something that’s made by you. It’s not something that happens,” said Crawford.

Krieger and Crawford agreed that there’s no one type of student at Next. Students at Next must meet the same standards traditional high school students do, but how they get there is different.

While the truth is in the details, Krieger and Crawford spoke about the importance of project-based learning to its structure. There are predetermined endpoints that students must reach to show that they understand the necessary information, but how they get there varies.

One example Crawford gave was a combined social studies and English project where the students took on an in-depth analysis of the federal court system that culminated in a mock trial. The final project was for each student to take a role in that mock trial, but to get to that point there were all sorts of tasks they had to do and concepts to understand, from reading the Constitution, to listening to oral arguments to researching potential issues.

“So all of the content of the class, so to speak, is driven by the project,” said Crawford.

It’s not about the teacher telling the kids what they need to learn, but giving students the final result and leading them in different ways toward success in reaching that goal.

“The point of the project is to put things in context. To give them some sort of contextual understanding of how things are tied together; how they connect; how they operate outside of the walls of the school and in people’s lives,” said Krieger.

The end is not about a  test, but about moving forward when kids are ready.

“School’s (Next) not about going to a class you’re assigned to, but a project encompassing multiple competencies in multiple domains. That drives instruction,” explained Crawford.

School is a means to end, he added. The goal is to give kids “the skills, the knowledge and the disposition to be successful in the real world.”

And the co-directors gave a lot of credit to teachers who can make the new structures work.

Krieger said there were many highlights of the past year, from trips to interact with larger communities to establishing a close knit community within the school, even among students who may appear to be quite different from each other.

Krieger noted that one of the things the school had been successful with had been establishing a community and connecting with students and families. The group went on outdoor excursions, overnight stays, connected with experts in the community, traveled to Boston for individualized learning tours and linked with volunteer community mentors.

And they’re hoping to expand on those successes this year and to build on relationships with existing educational institutions such as Pinkerton Academy, where Derry sends its high school students.

Moving forward, staff members are looking more closely at curriculum and at rewriting competencies to give teachers more direction and to make them more accessible to kids, families and the community.

New staff, including a guidance counselor and another English teacher, are being brought on as well.

“We’ve acknowledged that there’s not one way to do things, and even within school we’re reflecting and adjusting to meet needs of individual students. It’s challenging but it’s part of the gig,” said Crawford.

Also important this coming year is the inclusion of 15 new students. Both Krieger and Crawford have been impressed with how accepting the diverse student body has been with each other.

“I’ve been very impressed with how accepting students are to students with differences,” Crawford said. “I think it’s easy to paint with a broad brush from the outside and to assume that all kids that come to Next are similar in some way. I think it’s what people from outside want to think, but the reality is that we’re really diverse.”

To learn more about Next, visit The school welcomes visitors.