Next Charter High School Settles into New Home

After a round of clapping, the entire student body of Next Charter School exploded into its lounge area at the end of a school day. The area features the kind of spaces dear to a teen’s heart, including places to plug in a laptop, a sunken conversation pit, chairs and tables – and a refrigerator.

Next took its next step late this summer, opening the school year in new quarters in West Running Brook Middle School. While the Derry School Board’s decision to move Next to West Running Brook and DEEP – Derry Early Education Program – back into Gilbert H. Hood Middle School wasn’t popular with some community members, Next codirectors Justin Krieger and Joseph Crawford rose above the fray to keep doing what they love, providing a quality alternative education.

The closing meeting is student-led and involves the entire school community, Krieger explained. All students and staff are involved, and each session includes a “Big Idea” that they mull and discuss. That day’s was “Anticipation.” After that they do a series of “lift-ups,” or public praise of anyone who’s done a good thing that day. There is a space for notices and announcements, and then the clap-out, he said.

Krieger said Next has an enrollment of 46 this year, with a waiting list.

The space at West Running Brook has a separate entrance with a locked door, just as it did at Hood, Krieger said. The common area, with chairs, tables and a conversation pit, is where students can chat with each other, consult informally with faculty, study on their own or eat lunch, hence the refrigerator. “They also hang out here before and after class,” he said.

Core academic studies take place in four light-filled classrooms or “learning spaces,” each 30×30 square feet, Krieger said. In one room, where he teaches narrative writing, chairs are set up in a circle, to facilitate interaction. But the teacher who follows him does a fiction class in the area, and arranges the chairs differently, he added. The Central Tenets of Next and the student commitments are listed on wall posters, he said, noting, “It helps imprint our culture on all of us.”

West Running Brook has been able to offer Next a better science lab than it had at Hood, and science teacher Emily Whalen is taking advantage of it. “It’s an upgrade for me, with more windows,” she said as she watered the plants that provide both beauty and support in her botany units.

Next Charter School science teacher Emily Whalen takes a break from caring for the plants in her new space at West Running Brook Middle School. Photo by Kathleen D. Bailey
Next Charter School science teacher Emily Whalen takes a break from caring for the plants in her new space at West Running Brook Middle School.
Photo by Kathleen D. Bailey

There’s also more storage, a facet no teacher ever rejects. “Corning Glass made a large donation of materials last year, and I had no space to store it,” she said. “Here, I do.”

On the day of the tour Whalen was on her way to buy fish for the aquarium she uses in a cycle-of-life emphasis. “The fish poop fertilizes the plants, which keep the water clean for more fish,” she explained.

The new facility has slightly more square footage, Krieger said. The learning spaces are larger, but they gave up some smaller conference rooms with the move, he said.

The school now has an art program, with instruction by AmeriCorps workers, and a portion of the art room will be partitioned off for the newly-hired guidance counselor, Elizabeth Verity. She brings Next’s faculty up to 11, Krieger said.

Krieger said the students like the new space. Some got a sneak preview over the summer, because, unlike a traditional public school, Next doesn’t formally end its year in June. “We had returning students dropping in in July and August,” he said, and they vetted the space.

He and Crawford held public information sessions and pre-opening tours, he said. “We’re three weeks into the new semester, and it’s not an issue,” he said of the earlier concerns. “Everyone has moved past that.”

Next, the first charter school in Derry, is doing well, Krieger said. It has a full enrollment and a strong partnership with the Derry Cooperative School District.  “The feedback from the families has been great,” he said. He and Crawford have just completed a survey of the school community on the culture, curriculum and student achievement, and he expects the data to guide the future direction of the school.

This year he expects the students to further embrace the idea of “competencies,” the things they need to know to gain mastery of a subject.  “If someone has an idea on how to earn their English competency, they can pitch it to us,” he said.

The school is also seeing the formation of extracurricular groups, including theater and a soccer team. And some of the older students are obtaining their driver’s licenses, which will enable them to move about the community.

“I have no regrets,” Krieger said of his decision to shift from a traditional public school setting. Both he and Crawford were assistant principals at Derry middle schools.

“We get to believe in an idea and we get to see it practiced every day,” he said.