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November 25, 2013

Graysville’s RCA lauded as successful rural charter school

GRAYSVILLE — As they examined paintings in their school, students in the pre-algebra class of teacher Tracey Drappo were seeking “unintentional geometry” on Monday as they looked for rectangles, rotation and degrees.

Students Ethan Sandifer and Bret Walsh sat on the floor glancing from the wall to their notebooks and back again. That’s part of the practical application of math to the world around them that interests the students at the Rural Community Academy in Graysville.

The small, rural school in northwestern Sullivan County has been recognized as an example of a successful rural charter by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools of Washington, D.C. It will be highlighted — along with schools in Colorado and Kansas — in a promotional film for the NAPCS website.

On Monday, a film crew was at the school to capture on video some of the success stories that have developed over the past 10 years with students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Mandi Johnson is the chief academics officer, a position similar to principal. Through personal experience, she has seen the academic success of the small class sizes. Johnson’s two young nephews, who live in Knox County, travel several miles with Johnson to attend school each day in Graysville.

“My brother and his wife made the decision to send their children here because they were not getting the help they needed in a traditional classroom,” Johnson said.

That is the type of parental decision-making that charter schools encourage, said Susie Pierce, operations officer and school leader, a position similar to superintendent.

“I think at these ages, K-8, parents should be the ones making the decision on what kind of education their children receive,” Pierce said.

Class sizes do not exceed 20 students, and when the students are in grades 5 to 8, they are placed in a class according to their achievement. For instance, a seventh-grader having difficulty in math may be placed in a lower math class to get help. A fifth-grader who excels in math may get moved into the eighth-grade-level math class.

Until fall 2012, Rural Community Academy was the only rural charter school in Indiana. That changed when Canaan Community Academy opened in southern Indiana, using the Graysville model.

Pierce said the Canaan residents found themselves in the same place that the Graysville community was in more than a decade ago — a similar place to where the community of Dugger is now experiencing, with school closure pending.

“We asked what they were going to do to this building,” Pierce said of the Graysville closing, “and they said, ‘turn off the utilities, put plywood on the windows and abandon the building.’ That’s what Canaan was facing, too.”

As a Graysville native loyal to her community, Pierce said she was like many people who wanted to see the local school stay. The building opened in 1927 as the Turman Township Grade and High School. Her own grandmother graduated in 1929.

She said that closing small schools leads to the deterioration of the rural community, and it sets aside a useful building that is a focus in the community.

Last weekend, the building was bustling with a holiday market with vendors set up in the gymnasium. Part of the project for the math students was to go into the gymnasium to measure and mark the vendor spots. That was the type of practical math application that lets students know they aren’t just learning for the sake of a textbook.

Johnson said that type of “people, places and things” supplement to education gives the students a reason to learn by making it more real. Another example of practical learning related to coal mining is to take a chocolate chip cookie and “mine” the chips. The students can see what happens to the “soil” (body of the cookie) as they dig for the coal.

“When you make those experiences more real for the students, it gives them more confidence. It gives them an opportunity to learn in a different way,” Pierce said.

Math teacher Drappo has been a teacher at the academy for the past five years. She actually made a professional switch from being a mental health caseworker to being a teacher, as a second career.

“I like my small classes,” Drappo said, “and I get to know my students. We can see how they are progressing, and if they need help, we can move them back, and if they are excelling, we pull them up as well.”

The office area of the school is cozy, with faux log cabin wallpaper giving the area a rustic feel.

That added character in the environment delighted the film crew of Tod Plotkin and Kevin Bradley as they interviewed a student, teacher, parent and administrator for the video to be made for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“This is one of the best settings,” said Plotkin, who had already filmed for the past nine days at schools in Colorado and Kansas.

One of those schools was in a farming community, and part of the students’ school day was to take care of farm animals.

“The reality was that they are likely going to live in a farming community, so they learn about responsibility,” Plotkin said. “The kids become attached to the animals, and they don’t want to miss school, even when they are sick.”

The family-friendly atmosphere at the Rural Community Academy fills a niche that many in Sullivan and surrounding counties have found important to their children’s education. Pierce said there are many misunderstandings about charter schools, but the reality is that they operate on a small budget with limited resources for transportation, building projects or capital equipment replacement.

With about 140 students, the academy is a public school, receiving taxpayer funding, and it is its own school corporation. But, there is no tax base, so there is no other funding from county taxes.

Students attend the school based on an application process. Returning students and their siblings are given first consideration, and any open slots are filled according to a lottery for the applications submitted. Sometimes there may be 12 applications submitted, but only six spots available.

“We can’t pay our teachers what they’re worth, because we have all these other costs,” Pierce said.

The two school buses in the district make limited stops for transportation. Often, parents drive students to a community bus stop location.

Pierce said she has been with the academy since it started — nine years as its leader.

“When we originally envisioned the charter, we hoped our model would be good enough to work for another charter,” Pierce said. “As far as the national recognition, we hoped we were good enough, and we hoped we would be recognized for that. I think we could be the model for any school. Any urban school could do this.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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