Photo by Chris Thelen

 

Columbia County’s first charter school, SAIL: School for Arts-Infused Learning, opened its doors in Evans at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. Faculty and staff already are seeing students flourish.

“The first time we saw our students perform, there wasn’t a dry eye,” says School Superintendent Kristy Zgol. “One of our special needs students – when he came to us, he was nonverbal. Now, after a few months of an arts-infused curriculum, he talks all the time. He talks in class with his teachers, and that has been really big for him. We have an autistic student who mostly talks in fragments and parrots people. We’ve never heard a complete sentence from this student, but she came up to the microphone and sang ‘12 Days of Christmas’ all by herself during Christmas karaoke – in front of the whole cafeteria.”

SAIL is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Berg and Todd Schafer. “Todd and I taught in public school for many years together,” Berg explains. “We saw the injustices in public education and thought there has to be a better way to meet the needs of kids who aren’t succeeding in traditional schools. So, we thought about it for about a year, did a lot of research and planning and finally pulled it all together.”

Their concept was a charter school designed to prepare students academically for college and a global economy by infusing arts into the curriculum. Turning that vision into reality, however, was not as easy as writing a charter and starting classes.  The first year they submitted the charter, it was denied. Year two brought another rejection.

“So, we regrouped, made some changes and made it happen in year three,” says Berg, SAIL’s Director of Student Services. “People laughed at us and said, ‘There’s no way you are going to build a facility and have it ready in time.’ We just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Zgol agrees that a project like SAIL requires determination. “You always have to have a positive attitude. It has to be that we will find away.”

SAIL’s charter is sponsored by the State Charter School Commission and not Columbia County. SAIL did seek local approval but was denied, which means the school receives no local tax dollars and no logistical support from the Columbia County Board of Education, including school transportation and food management. Its structure makes SAIL its own school district.

“Having authorization from the State Charter School Commission has given us a wealth of knowledge and support that has helped make us successful,” Zgol says. “You hear a lot about failing charter schools, but those schools usually are not under the state commission. Charter schools often pop up in under-performing public school districts to help those districts succeed. They are sponsored by their local districts, and many of them do, indeed, fail.”

Columbia County, of course, is consistently ranked as one of the top-performing public-school districts in Georgia. “One of the most difficult things for us is changing the perception that charter schools are failing and don’t last long,” Zgol explains. “In our experience, though, the public, parents and students have been very supportive. Even though we did not get local approval, we have even heard from educators in the area who fully support what we do. They like that we are trying something new and taking the risk.”

The perception of failing charter schools, however, has not stopped enrollment at SAIL. With only one semester in the books, the school is at full student capacity with a waiting list.

“You can’t argue with numbers,” Berg says proudly. “We have a waiting list of over a thousand students. We are at 432 students, which is full capacity. Right now, we are K through sixth grade. Next year, we add seventh grade and will have 504 students. We also have a very robust special-needs program here with students who are deaf and have autism and learning disabilities.”

SAIL’s concept of arts-infused learning comes with its own misconception. Because it has “arts-infused” in its name, many people have suggested that SAIL is a fine-arts school with a focus on arts education – a school to prepare students for careers as dancers, actors, writers and artists. In reality, the school uses the arts in conjunction with core academics to help students grasp the subject matter and excel.

“We put a lot of research into arts infusion,” Zgol says. “What we found was that special needs students, students from lower socioeconomic groups and gifted students responded very positively to arts infusion. So we thought, ‘If each of those areas responds well, why wouldn’t all students respond well?’ That’s when we decided to take this huge leap of faith.”

Berg elaborates: “We teach with arts infusion, be we are first and foremost a college-prep and career-readiness school. We assume each one of our students will be ready to go to college. We set a very high bar for academic success.”

As Zgol explains it, that academic success is vital. “A charter school is a lot different in that our students’ success here keeps us here. We have to out-perform the state academically in order to maintain our charter.”

Berg points out that they are preparing their students to compete in a global economy. “We have two full-time Spanish teachers on staff, and our students start being exposed to a foreign language in kindergarten. They have been at it for one semester, and we have kids who could be bilingual by the third grade. In fact, some parents have told us that they can’t understand their kids because they have started speaking Spanish. We have to treat our kids like they are going be global. They will be competing for jobs in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and beyond.”

To illustrate how an arts-infused curriculum works, Director of Curriculum Ann Sturkey points to one of the social studies classes: “The students were learning about the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The social studies teacher partnered with the dance teacher, who introduced the kids to music from that era. The students then connected dance moves with that music and were able to retain so much vital information about the subject matter.”

At SAIL, all grade levels are partnering core academics with arts education, and the students are fully embracing the concept.

“The kids get in there and say, ‘This is how I relate it. This is how I choreograph it.’ They become producers,” Zgol says. “I did not think that was going to happen in the first semester. It has really exceeded our expectations.”

The concept has an added benefit for the students, Sturkey says. “Many times, the teachers just facilitate. The students are taking ownership. We have dancers doing interpretive dance with the stages of the water cycle—something they choreographed and put together on their own.”

Arts infusion helps the students succeed academically, Zgol says. “We know that when you learn a new concept or term—if you can attach it to artistic value like a song, a dance or an art piece, you have a much better chance of recalling that concept.”

SAIL has one benefit many charter schools do not have—a new facility. Most charter schools start out in small buildings and mobile units. “We were lucky,” Berg says. “We were able to work with educators, artists and architects to build a school best suited to an arts-infused curriculum.”

The classrooms have windows that look out into collaboration pods in the hallways. Students are urged to work together and collaborate as much as possible. The dance class has all the necessities of a working dance studio, including a mirrored wall. The art class has a wall of windows that retracts like a garage door so the class can spill out onto the concrete patio when the weather permits. Another concrete patio and outdoor area was built specifically with artistic performances in mind. There is even a computerized car line system that makes end-of-day dismissal quick and painless. And this is just Phase A.

“If you can imagine it,” Berg says, pointing to a wooded area behind the school, “that is where we will one day build the middle school building and the high school building.”

The arts-infused curriculum is very special to Sturkey. “I’m a graduate of Davidson [Fine Arts Academy]. That school was my ‘Aha!’ It helped me get out of my box, and I grew academically and personally there. When I heard Michael’s concept of a school with arts infusion, I knew it would offer academic success and help tap into creativity and communication. It has been a big step of faith, but I believe in it. Seeing the life that these students are experiencing while learning academics—it gives us chills to see it.”

Article appears in the February/March 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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