Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning open for enrollment | TheUnion.com

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning open for enrollment

After years of planning and fundraising, Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL), a public, tuition-free charter high school located on the Bear River High School Campus on Magnolia Road in Grass Valley, is ready to launch and provide students with a smaller alternative school, focused on providing project-based, hands-on, college preparatory curriculum.

"We're pushing our students toward high-quality work that is linked to a need in our community," SAEL Principal Erica Crane said. "So we might discuss what it means to have clean water, then we'd partner with Sierra Streams and do a study on the Bear River watershed and bring a group of students to test and analyze the water."

Crane added, "It's this idea of doing hands-on projects in the community, in the field and regularly leaving the traditional classroom and expanding the idea of what a classroom is."

With a full staff of more than 10 educators, SAEL plans to open for ninth- and 10th-grade students on Aug. 13 and will cap the initial two-grade enrollment at 120 students. The school plans to implement 11th-grade coursework in the 2015-16 school year and all four high school grades the year after, with a maximum enrollment of 240 students.

Crane says SAEL looks forward to implementing a comprehensive learning approach similar to Grass Valley Charter School's K-8 program, but said the school currently has a serious problem — they need more students.

"We only have about 10," Crane said. "As someone who started a lot of sports teams, we had a lot of kids who would say, 'Well I'm not joining it until other people join,' and I feel like we're a little bit at that point, where some families are waiting to make sure this is going to happen. But if everybody waits, it'll be tough."

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After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Columbia University in New York, Crane said she got a degree in physical education at Teachers College, where she realized she wanted to work with students in an active way using expeditionary learning (EL).

Crane worked as a physical education teacher for more than five years and also helped to start EL schools in the South Bronx. She also worked as a school designer with five different EL schools in Connecticut. Crane made her way to the West Coast after recently working with ninth-grade students in Lake Tahoe before moving to Grass Valley to help launch SAEL.

"I knew Grass Valley folks like Alex (Ezzell) for years," Crane told The Union. "I was really attracted to the community here because the Grass Valley Charter School is just a great group of people, and that's where SAEL originally came from."

According to Crane, three years ago, Grass Valley Charter School Principal Brian Martinez began to put in the work to get an EL high school in the area after parents and teachers suggested that the county have that option. Martinez got a group of educators together to help with the effort, which Crane says included current SAEL board President Ezzell and board members James Berardi and Rachel Peña-Roos.

SAEL was initially scheduled to open this past fall, but the funding fell through.

"Last year, people signed on, there was excitement, but it didn't quite get off the ground," Crane said. "But now we have that grant money, we have all our teachers, we have all these things, so if people are still trying to figure out if this is going to happen, we really want to say, and make sure that the community knows, that this EL school is definitely happening, and we need students."

EL is an alternative to traditional education and was the early 1990s' brainchild of Harvard University and Outward Bound, an education program focused on out-of-classroom learning.

"We're able to connect and collaborate for a really unified curriculum," SAEL science teacher Michelle O'Shea said. "It makes learning more relevant and engaging for students."

According to O'Shea, rather than the traditional six to seven disconnected periods throughout the day, students at SAEL will learn interconnected curriculum across all subjects that are related to specific projects each class will be working on.

"It's an intellectual expedition for the whole semester, where we'll be engaged with the community a lot," Crane sad. "So this is where, if we're studying in science about wind turbines, students would then ideally work with people who potentially create the science inside of a turbine, who make the energy. They would possibly work with people who actually have a climbing background who actually climb up the wind turbines to fix them."

Crane added, "They would be able to consult with people who actually do the work they are reading about, so instead of just being in the classroom, we look at our classroom as the greater community, as well."

While SAEL's approach to teaching will be different from a traditional high school, the academy will share certain facilities with Bear River High School and will potentially share different electives and extracurricular activities between the two schools. The school will also be implementing the state's new Common Core standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment.

O'Shea says one of the only drawbacks to a small charter school like SAEL is the lack of an established sports and social scene for students. However, the smaller student population also creates a smaller teacher-to-student ratio, something parent Rosa Contreras likes.

"The kids can't get lost," Contreras said. "There's not hundreds of them, and the teachers know them all. All the kids know each other, and it's very supportive to learning and being a community and being of service to each other."

Contreras' son, Sebastian Merrick, goes to Grass Valley Charter School and plans to go to SAEL next year as a freshman.

"I like that we get to do experiments and we go on tons of field trips," Merrick said. "I like studying science and math because it just all clicked for me this year. I like learning geometry because I can relate it to the world around me."

For those parents who are interested in enrolling their children at SAEL and want to learn more about the education services it will offer, Crane says her door is always open.

"We want to make sure families know they can check in with me. Our offices are open every day; they can come to an info session and they can learn about the program, learn about an option in the community." Crane said.

"If parents come in and can register their kids by April 18, they will most likely get in."

For more information on SAEL and future info sessions, go to http://www.sierraacademy.net/

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated SAEL's opening day. The Union regrets the error.

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