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Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning charter school to open in fall

The increasing popularity of charter schools will be taken to new heights this fall with the addition of the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning, an all-charter high school.

“It was a long process. It took two years to get our charter petition put together and approved, but we have a charter with our sponsor district,” said Arthur Fellows, interim president of Sierra Academy. “It was an arduous task, but we pulled it off.”

The school will follow an expeditionary learning model similar to that of Grass Valley Charter, one of the largest K-8 charters in Nevada County, which utilizes thematic-based and integrative teaching methods.



Although the “expeditionary” connotation of the school’s learning model might conjure up the idea of a backpacking trip, the approach aims to provide an education around a common theme.

“It’s a proven method that is practiced nationwide successfully, and we are looking to make it an option.”

— ARTHUR FELLOWS, interim president of Sierra Academy

“The difference between our lecture format and (a traditional school) is that it’s going to relate to what you’re learning,” Fellows said. “So your math will relate to your science to your writing, to your social studies class … You can delve into a number of different relevant topics, and at the high school level you can do that with much more sophistication.”




Fellows became the director of Sierra Academy for Expeditionary Learning after he watched the expeditionary model through the education of his two children, both Grass Valley Charter students.

“I’ve just seen this program work really well and I’ve attended national conferences for expeditionary learning and seen examples of how spectacular it’s been working in other communities,” Fellows said, adding there are 175 expeditionary learning schools in the U.S., a third of which are high schools. “It’s a proven method that is practiced nationwide successfully and we are looking to make it an option.”

The high school program needed a state-sponsored grant in order to finalize the school’s opening, which Fellows said he applied for last year without success.

“There were some struggles with the state,” Fellows said. “Hardly anybody was approved for the grant last year. We’ve been approved for funding and expect that before the end of next month, we will be proceeding with all due haste.”

The total for the grant is $575,000 to be distributed in the next three years, with the first $225,000 to be disbursed this month, Fellows said. Though the funding is secured, the administrators still have a lot of work to do, he said, pointing to planning, curriculum and the hiring of staff on the to-do list. The location of the school also remains in limbo as of late April.

“We’re in negotiations right now with a couple properties, so I shouldn’t say exactly, but it will be in Grass Valley,” Fellows said.

Sierra Academy aims to enroll 120 students its first year, ideally with 60 freshmen and 60 sophomores, although Fellows said the doors will open even if the numbers fall short of that goal.

“The following year, those will roll to juniors and we’ll add a new freshman class until we reach a targeted number,” he said. “It’s too soon to tell, but we hope to hit that number … There is a number below that at which we’ll start up if we don’t hit that number. We have a little bit of flexibility.”

The debut of Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning could have a considerable impact on the area’s traditional high schools, which already face declining enrollment. Nevada Union High School’s numbers are down from 2,674 in 2005-06 to this year’s 2,048 students, according to the California Department of Education, Bear River’s enrollment has taken an even larger hit by percentage, from 1,108 students in 2008-09 to this year’s 791, representing a 28.6 percent decrease.

“A lot of that is probably economic,” said Nevada Union High School Principal Mike Blake. “The housing crisis didn’t help. Another challenge for the schools in particular is the number of charters, which are prevalent in Nevada County.

“I’ve heard there about 500 students who would be eligible to come to the high school district who are choosing a different option.”

The Sierra Academy will serve as another form of competition, Blake said, even though the new school received its charter through the Nevada Joint Union High School District.

“They’re indirectly our competition because the students who come there might be NU students,” Blake said. “Although they’ll be students in the high school district, it will affect enrollment just as if our students elected to go to Bear River.”

Rather than view the Sierra Academy as a threat, however, Blake sees it as an opportunity to improve his own school.

“I think that type of school with that kind of mission and focus presents a challenge to us,” Blake said. “But I’m definitely a believer that competition is good, makes you better and more efficient and creative in how you’re going to offer things.”

Bitney College Prep, currently the only local all-charter high school in western Nevada County, may also be impacted by the opening of Sierra Academy, though Bitney College Prep Director Bruce Herring said he’s confident his enrollment will be marginally affected, if at all.

“Bitney is Bitney and we have a very dedicated group of people and I think the impact will be negligible,” he said. “My thoughts (to Sierra Academy) are best wishes. It’s a difficult environment because there’s a lot of competition for a dwindling number of students. In my view, the biggest impact will be (with) Nevada Union.”

Nevada Joint Union High School District officials would rather avoid such an impact, they said.

“We’re hopeful that they’ll attract students who would go to a charter anyway,” said Karen Suenram, assistant superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District. “Hopefully it won’t affect our enrollment, but they’ll still be successful.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email jterman@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.


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