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Winter 2008



Collegium Charter School

Teaching Through Variety Produced by Todd Rodgers & Written by Prem Desai After 30 years service to the Marine Corps (five on active duty) and a career in industry, Bill Winters, the CEO of Collegium Charter School in Exton PA, is facing his next challenge: his school’s curriculum. “We’re putting a lot of time and a lot of effort into curriculum development,” says the Stanford and University of Washington graduate. The project has been the subject of weekly meetings and a lot of hard work for the past three years now. “But it’s never done - we’ll always go back and continually review where we are and make changes when required. One of the things we can do as a charter school is to make corrections



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quickly when we see an issue. Many times in a school district you have to do a five-year study before changing curriculum- by the time you’ve finished the study it’s probably a little archaic. The time has passed.” Collegium was founded in 1999, starting with kindergarten through to sixth grade and added a grade each year until they achieved a K through 12 school. Already, there are over 1300 students enrolled up through 12th grade for next year, and that figure is increasing without money being spent to advertise. “It’s basically word of mouth more than anything,” says Winters. He administers 215 staff and a budget of $17 million across three new buildings. Winters and the Principal of the Upper School, Amanda Lake, say they take a pragmatic approach to teaching. “We use a variety of methods, which is what really works,” says Lake. “We use inquiry-based learning, cooperative group work, lectures, experiments, discussions, etc. So I’d say that the use of all the methods is what makes us so effective.”

on their ability to make consistent progress. The current testing procedures mandated through No Child Left Behind don’t really allow for that.” Part of the design for charter schools in Pennsylvania allows for some flexibility on highly qualified teachers. A chemistry teacher at Collegium, for example, holds a doctorate in the subject and was allowed to teach while he got his qualifications in place.

But Winters would still like more power to choose. “We define our chemistry teacher as being very highly qualified,” he says. “The federal guidelines may not have when he first arrived.” The school’s teacher development is equally practical. They use fewer outside consultants and rely more on the expertise of staff and careful observation to shape the

“But we don’t teach to the test. We’re very adamant about not doing that,” adds Winters of standardized testing. “We teach science, social studies and foreign languages from Kindergarten upwards. We have not reduced any of our programs in history, the arts or sciences in order to focus on test taking.” “Standardized testing doesn’t take into account that there are different types of learners and that they learn at different rates,” explains Lake. “Some students have learning disabilities and they are making progress and they are learning and catching up to their peers. But the testing is standardized so it doesn’t really allow for those exceptions.” The same applies to the Adequate Yearly Progress measure. “It’s pretty impractical. By 2014 we’re supposed to have 100 per cent proficiency. In our case 13 per cent of our kids are receiving special education because they’re not at grade level. The goal is just an absurd one. We believe the kids should be tested

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direction the teachers take. “We change our in-service schedule based on our needs,” says Winters of the 10 or so days they have a year. “We constantly review where we are and make decisions. We find we have enough expertise on staff to keep us not only current, but on the cutting edge.” The same process goes into that curriculum. “We’re really trying to make a well-rounded student and not use tests to direct our curriculum,” says Winters. “We’re not scaling back anything. We have five solid subjects in grades K through six: science, math, language arts, social studies and Spanish. Beginning with seventh grade we have six solids - we add


Charter Schools Today

Winter Edition 2008

writing. So we actually have a double dose of language arts from 7th grade through 12th grade. Plus we have full art, music and physical education programs. The reason we’re able to do this is that we have a longer year – about 200 days - and a longer day about an hour longer - so that gives us the opportunity to meet all these requirements.” Students are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct, keep their uniforms up to a certain standard and treat school faculty and staff respectfully. Parents and students are involved in the process of resolving disciplinary issues. Meetings are held to set goals for improving student’s behavior and outline consequences should the behavior continue. That’s not the only time parents come in. “When we started our school, one of the precepts we used is that parent involvement is very critical to a student’s education,” says Winters of the school as a whole. We actually require every parent to volunteer two hours every month in some fashion in the school. It can be in committees, it can be working in the classroom, it can be licking envelopes at home.” In fact, twice a year, parents must have a conference with teachers before they can see their child’s report card. “We kind of hold their feet to the fire to ensure we have that involvement,” says Winters. The school is now working on updating the math curriculum through a series of internal tests designed to show any weaknesses in the current teaching. And with major projects like a new gymnasium and auditorium in the pipeline, Winters expects enrollment to go up to around 1700 over the next five or so years. His only worry in fact, is the same as many of us: “The money! That’s where I spend most of my time…trying to secure sufficient funding. Charter schools face a real battle finding money for facilities.”

COMPANY AT A GLANCE Established : 1999 Staff : 215 Students: 1300 CEO : Bill Winters Charter Schools Today

Winter Edition 2008




Winter 2008

Collegium Charter School Lower School, Grades K - 3 500 James Hance Court Exton, PA 19341 United States

Intermediate School, Grades 4 - 5 515 James Hance Court Exton, PA 19341 United States

Upper School, Grades 6-12 535 James Hance Court Exton, PA 19341 United States