Explorer Academy showcased as charter school compromise

May 24, 2019

HUNTINGTON - Education reform dominated a fractured West Virginia Legislature during the regular session and may do so again in an upcoming special session.

But the model set by Explorer Academy - built four years ago completely under the Expeditionary Learning (EL) curriculum, though operated as a normal public elementary school in Cabell County - may be a point of compromise in the state’s ongoing charter schools debate.

At least that’s Del. Matthew Rohrbach’s hope. The Republican representative from Cabell County toured the Huntington school Thursday along with a delegation of state and county officials, showcasing the EL model in the hope of replicating it throughout West Virginia.

On hand for the tour were West Virginia Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; Bray Cary, senior adviser to Gov. Jim Justice; Michael Ferrell of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission; and Stan Maynard of Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Education Research. Cabell County Superintendent of Schools Ryan Saxe and retired former Superintendent Bill Smith, who presided over the school’s creation, both attended with county leadership.

The tour provided a showcase of the education reform that is already possible within the public school system, Rohrbach said.

Opened in 2015 with the consolidation of Peyton and Geneva Kent elementary schools, Explorer Academy is entirely public within Cabell County Schools and equal to the district’s other elementaries. Located in the heavily renovated Beverly Hills Middle School, the school serves neighborhood students just like any other school - in this case, one of the county’s most impoverished districts.

What sets Explorer Academy apart is its curriculum and the freedom Cabell County Schools has exercised in its creation.

Explorer Academy is the first - and, so far, only - public school in West Virginia completely built around the concept of Expeditionary Learning. Students still follow regular public school requirements, but the lessons are comprised in a curriculum based on the idea of project-based learning through multidiscipline “expeditions” as opposed to classroom learning taught one subject at a time.

“We essentially have a charter school in Cabell County, and we’ve had it for four years now,” Rohrbach said as the tour met and shook hands with a fifth-grade class. “This can, and probably should, be re-created across the state.”

Officials in a number of counties have expressed interest in planting their own EL schools, including some from Pocahontas County, who also toured the school Thursday. Allowing that model to spread effectively, however, requires the state to shoulder the startup costs of installing EL and training faculty to use it.

That would come if the Legislature again funds the state’s “innovation zone” initiative, which has been in code for years but was drained of its funding five years ago.

“Other counties want to do this, and teachers want to be innovative and use best practices,” Rohrbach said. “We just need to help the counties a little bit with the funding.”

What struck the speaker of the House was Explorer Academy’s approach to engaging all the professional staff as a collective team, rather than just in isolated classrooms. That requires commitment by counties and staff, but Hanshaw said that model might just as well be replicated anywhere in West Virginia.

As for the charter school debate, he left room for compromise in that the definition of “charter school” has since been diluted.

“That term (charter school) means so many things to so many different people that I don’t know what it means to any one person anymore,” Hanshaw said. “What I think we’re talking about here is a will to just let schools be flexible and do what teachers know how to do, which is teach kids. What we call it is immaterial.”

Cary also noted the evident single-minded teamwork that made Explorer Academy run, calling the school potentially “a giant step in education.”

Visiting Thursday on behalf of Justice, who has voiced his opposition to charter schools, Cary hinted the Explorer Academy model may find itself in the governor’s plans for a stronger education system.

“He sent me down here to find out about this, so I suspect he’ll be wanting to see it soon,” Cary said.

Classes at Explorer Academy were dismissed at 1 p.m. Thursday after an unexpected power outage in the Beverly Hills neighborhood. Explorer Academy is designed to use as much natural light as possible, in line with its educational philosophies, which allowed the tour to continue unimpeded.