by Georgia Charter Schools Association
When Brighten Academy opened in 2006, the school’s founding team wanted to start school from the ground up that was centered on the needs of students. The school’s mission is to provide a productive learning environment using an innovative, research-based instructional model with a highly qualified staff that produces measured growth in all students every year.
Since the school’s opening twelve years ago, the school has undergone a dramatic shift in demographics. In 2006, approximately 70 percent of Brighten Academy’s student body was white and 30 percent of its students were other races. Today, 69 percent of its students are black and Latino and 31 percent of its students are white. The school has also seen an increase in its free and reduced lunch population. Brighten Academy Executive Director Lisa McDonald says the school has seen the shift as the demographics of Douglas County have changed, particularly following the economic downturn that began in 2008. Brighten Academy is the only charter school in Douglas County. McDonald says the school’s attendance zone encompasses the entire county and represents a cross-section of the community.
“The racial diversity has provided beautiful opportunities to help our community grow. It has also helped my staff learn about cultural biases,” said McDonald. “We’re intentional in learning about it and making sure we teach kids how to listen to each other and have those conversations.”
Brighten Academy has consistently outperformed the district on CCRPI, McDonald says the school’s focus on doing work that matters is one of the reasons she believes the school does well. She says student projects are supposed to serve the community.
“When they work on projects for audiences outside the school, the level of work improves,” said McDonald.
“We’ve seen enormous growth in students and the school,” said Leigh DeNucci, Gifted Coordinator for Brighten Academy. “The students truly own their learning (pictured with students below).”
The school has always been a project-based learning school but McDonald says switching to the EL Education model has really grounded Brighten. El Education model is an expeditionary learning model that focuses on student and teacher engagement. It empowers teachers to unleash the potential of their students. As part of the model, students are required to think critically and take active roles in their classrooms and community.
“Students used to do projects to show that they learned,” said McDonald. “Today, the long-term, complex projects that they work on for between 8 to 12 weeks are the learning.”
For several years, fifth graders at Brighten Academy have used their U.S. history lessons on American conflicts and the Constitution to focus on the rights of veterans. They learn about veteran healthcare, the suicide rate and the treatment of veterans. As a result, students have done local lobbying to advocate on behalf of veterans. During a previous school year, Brighten students even had a Skype call with former U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald. Teacher Kelly Cadman has been recognized for the work Brighten students have done on behalf of veterans.
Fifth graders have also used their science curriculum to explore animal rights. As part of their studies, they examined the poaching of elephants and the effects on the environment and the economy. Students visited an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. After the visit, students created public service announcements as part of a fundraiser for the elephant sanctuary. In the future, teachers are potentially planning for students to lobby in support of legislative approval for a “Save the Elephants” specialty license plate for the state of Georgia. Educators are also considering whether students should push for a “Save the Elephants” stamp that would be distributed through the U.S. Postal Service.
“I love to better myself and better the world,” said fifth-grader Kyrel Springer (Springer is pictured on the right with a painting by an elephant at the elephant sanctuary students raised money for). “Helping the elephants was just one step. “It really opened up our eyes and showed us you can do something to help others by doing little things. I want do it for other things like feeding the homeless or giving people money or food.” (Springer is pictured on the right with a painting by an elephant at the elephant sanctuary students raised money for)
Eighth graders read a book about the Little Rock Nine called “A Mighty Long Way.” Teachers use the book as a springboard for students to learn about empathy. Last year’s eighth graders created discussion prompts and other teaching materials about empathy around subject matter that includes race, gender, weight and bullying. The students recently presented the empathy training materials to all of the school counselors in Douglas County to use as part of empathy training curriculum. McDonald says several traditional schools in the district are now using the materials. This year’s eighth graders hope to present the work they develop to the district school board.
“We think kids need to know they have a voice, and it’s their duty to make the world a better place,” said McDonald.