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February 02. 2014 9:24PM

At Gate City Charter School in Nashua, learning is an art

NASHUA — When Gate City Charter School for the Arts opens in September, every room will be the art room.

The new public charter school, which expects to enroll 100 students in grades kindergarten through fourth, will offer an arts-rich curriculum that incorporates drama, dance, music and visual arts in all academic subjects, including math, science and history. Teachers will encourage expression, foster imagination and use the arts to help students become critical and creative thinkers.

“Children are born curious and capable of learning,” said Karin Cevasco, who started developing the idea for the school with local art teacher Rebecca Fredrickson in 2011, when her own two children were in pre-school.

Cevasco wanted her children to continue learning in a setting that cultivated creativity and expression, and she felt there should be a choice beyond a traditional, structured classroom. She and Fredrickson started talking up the idea of a school with an arts-integrated curriculum with local arts organizations and community leaders, and they found plenty of interest and support.

Long hours of research and planning and many meetings with local and state education leaders went into designing the school. Cevasco admits she didn’t know in the beginning how much time and energy were needed to launch a charter school.

“You have no idea how much work it is,” she said with a laugh.

And there were setbacks, like the state Board of Education’s 10-month moratorium on new charter schools triggered by a concern over funding.

“It’s been a long process, but we worked through it and came out stronger,” said Cevasco.

And since winning official approval from the state last summer, Gate City Charter School for the Arts has been quickly moving forward, thanks in part to a three-year federal startup grant for charter schools.

The board of directors is expected to announce the location of the school this week, one of the big questions among many interested families. Cevasco wouldn’t give out any early information on the site, but she did say it would be a Nashua address.

One of the other big questions Cevasco has been fielding is where Gate City Charter School stands in relation to the Common Core standards. Although the school will have its own unique curriculum, it will still be aligned to the standards, and students will take the Common Core-based Smarter Balance assessment test.

During the first year, the school will focus on its K-4 program, which will offer one kindergarten class, two multi-age classes for first- and second-graders, and two classes that team up third- and fourth-graders.

During the second year, the school will add multi-age classrooms for 60 students in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades. The school hopes to enroll 20 eighth-graders at the start of its third year,

Like other public schools, Gate City Charter School is free and open to all children in the area. If there are more applications than spaces, enrollment will be determined by a lottery.

Cevasco said the school will work with a special education liaison from the Nashua School District to accommodate any student with special needs and an individual education plan.

“It’s our goal to meet all the needs of those students,” she said, adding that the special education link is just one example of what has been a cordial and supportive relationship with Nashua public school administration and staff.

Nashua teachers who are working on curriculum that fits with the Common Core standards have reached out to the school with questions and ideas.

“We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from teachers about how we are forming our curriculum,” she said.

Funding for all charter schools is still a challenge. The state picks up the tuition costs and pays $5,450 per student, roughly one third of the cost of an education at a traditional public school. The Legislature is now reviewing a bill that would increase that funding to roughly 50 percent of what communities pay for students in their school systems.

Financing and development are two specialties that Cevasco said are in the capable hands of a talented board of trustees, with members bringing a wide range of experience in arts, education and management to the school.

John Keicher signed on last fall as the school’s treasurer. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force, Keicher started a new career in a Waynesboro, Va., classroom through the Troops to Teachers program. He taught students how to repair computers and co-founded the Computer Redistribution Team, a nonprofit organization that provides free, refurbished computers to needy people around the world.

Keicher was pleased to put his experience in education and nonprofits to work for Gate City Charter School, and he said he enjoys working on big projects. But it was also the philosophy of the school that convinced him to get on board

“In my elementary school, it was all reading and memorization, and I just think of how much more interesting it would have been to learn math through music or history through acting something out,” he said.

Keicher said his daughter was once in a skit that acted out the digestive system. Not only was it interesting and fun, Kiecher said, it’s the type of learning that sticks with students.

For Keicher, a seat at the table of a team that’s creating a school with a different approach to learning was too good to pass up.

“It’s exciting to be able to start a school,” he said. “You’re talking about molding young minds. It’s a big responsibility and a great opportunity.”


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