Millennium Charter Academy finds itself, in a sense, being an unintentional hidden educational treasure as it begins its 14th year.
“We still get a lot of comments from people who say they don’t know what we are all about,” said Millennium Charter Academy Director of Development Lu Ann Browne. “Local people say they didn’t know we are here. Twice a month at least I have people touring our school and ask what our tuition is. We don’t have that. We are a public school.”
Browne appears philosophical about this, noting the academy is located on the edge of Mount Airy, “tucked away” in a quiet suburb. When it comes to educational institutions, 14 years is a short time compared to the overall scheme of things.
Headmaster Kirby McCrary agrees.
“What we do is provide a classical education at no cost,” said McCrary. “I think a local gem or treasure we have here is children are taught to think. They are given a wide and deep body of knowledge and then taught how to think about this body of knowledge. We teach them logic and philosophy and then how to express themselves. It’s all tied together.”
Browne also pointed out another question regularly fielded by staffers is the difference between Core Knowledge and Common Core.
“Our Core Knowledge, not to be confused with Common Core, is a real gem and something that is different,” said Browne. She is referring to the fact that the Core Knowledge approach, championed Core Knowledge Foundation founder E. D. Hirsch, who published “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” in 1988.
His works “The Core Knowledge Sequence” and “The Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence” lay out the information Hirsch and his associates at the Core Knowledge Foundation believe should be taught in each grade through a curriculum which builds on itself in subsequent levels.
“He (Hirsch) was looking at what it means to be successfully educated in America and this curriculum came about from this study,” said Browne. “It makes the curriculum more engaging and fun for students. That richness keeps the children engaged. It fits well with our classical model for education.” She said MCA is recognized as a National Core Knowledge site.
Brown said the academy’s classical education model starts students with content in the elementary levels and progresses to students learning logic and how to process content and then moves finally to a rhetorical stage where they learn how to process what they have learned, with each level geared around developmental stages in children.
“It’s liberal arts but the sciences are a big part in classical education. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a natural part of who we are,” Browne said. She emphasized MCA relies on inquiry-based science even in its kindergarten levels with participation in the science fair required for students in grades 4-8.
She said students participate in the N.C. Student Academy of Sciences Research Paper camp, where the school captured two state titles this year. This competition features judges who are professors or research scientists critiquing student papers on their science fair projects.
“You get public speaking, presentation and the opportunity to hear a real scientist present as a speaker,” said Browne. “What an opportunity for kids to really see science which is a big deal here.”
She noted MCA is in its ninth year of a laptop computer 1:1 initiative for its students with teachers being experienced in using technology in the classroom. She said an example of a project touching on many areas in the curriculum is third grade students building their own Viking ships as part of learning about engineering. Other activities include science Olympiad and robotics, in which the school qualified for state competition and went on to earn regional honors.
Students were challenged to build their viking ships out of recycled materials from home. A human biology class staged a meal where menu items were used to suggest parts of the human body such as deviled eggs as “eyes” and kielbasa for the digestive system.
“We (use) STEM very well here. It’s a natural part of a classical school,” Browne said. “The third piece of our model will be the high school where we can complete the process for our students. This will be the rhetoric stage. Although art and music programs have suffered nationally in education they are an integral part of who we are.”
Another gem Academy kindergarten teacher Kara Westmoreland is excited to discuss is the use of the Orton-Gillingham Method in kindergarten. This method of reading instruction was developed in the early-20th century. It is described as language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative and cognitive. It was developed by neuropsychiatrist Samuel Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gilingham.
It is an intensive, sequential phonics-based system that teaches the basics of word formation before whole meanings. The method accommodates and utilizes three “pathways” through which people learn: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Academy students use trays of sand to trace the letters and sounds which are concepts they later connect the two with writing.
“They will sit for 40 minutes with the sand trays and write and enjoy it,” said Westmoreland.
The 29-year veteran educator explained learning to write can be one of the most stressful things many 5-year-olds attempt early on and this method has taken a lot of stress off of students. She said the ability to connect sound with symbol in a visual way modeling with the sand trays appears to connect the concepts rapidly for academy kindergarten students as evidenced by their compositions on display in classrooms.
Browne said another example of the integration of science and the arts is the advanced music group at the academy. She said some students will perform an original work composed by eighth grade student Drew Morrow. Music teacher Rodney Money has arranged Morrow’s piece of music so other students will help perform various parts as it became a collaborative project. It is titled “Reason to Fly.”
“I’ve written the lyrics too,” said Morrow. “It was the music I was really concerned about. It’s about chasing your dreams and it’s a positive, uplifting work about if you’re waiting what are you waiting for,” said Morrow. “You can make it if you just try.”
Money said the piece was one of the few times he’s seen students spontaneously break into applause after it was first played. He said some of the students who have dabbled with instruments came to him after school, learned some chords, worked more at home and came back fine tune what they learned in class. Money said students helped each other learn the instruments in what also became music evolving into leadership. McCrary and Browne agreed another gem at the academy is its teachers.
“I recently took them through the battle of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae,” said sixth grade history teacher Mike Drury. “When they read from (Greek historian) Herodotus about the 300 and they find at one point the battle was down to 50 soldiers circled around their king’s body they have a clear idea about bravery and courage. This is a story being told 3,000 years ladder. Kids connect it to today’s world. It paints a picture of heroes. What can be. People of courage and compassion, truly noble. This inspires students.”
David Broyles may be reached at 336-719-1952 or on twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.