Unique education choices abound in Adams County
By Jaime Ridgley
A variety of educational opportunities are available in Adams County for those who want their children to experience a different kind of learning. We explore three unique schools in the county and their approach to educating the next generation.
St. Francis Xavier Catholic School
St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Gettysburg isn’t only focused on the educational components that children need to learn. The school also gives students the tools they need to become well-rounded, successful, compassionate individuals, strong role models, and mentors.
Rooted in the Catholic faith, this private school teaches students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
“I believe our PreK 4s through Grade 8 setting makes us extremely unique and allows our older classes to partner with the younger students to attend Mass and do various activities through the year together,” says school principal Rebecca Sieg. “Our older students cherish this mentoring opportunity, and the younger students very much look up to the older ‘prayer partner.’”
One of the school’s more unique learning initiatives is its Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Science & Education Program. “Our fourth- through eighth-grade students investigate and collect data, using the hands-on GLOBE protocols, within our local community and share our data with other students, teachers, and scientists who are collecting similar data around the world,” says Sieg. “Many of our sixth- through eighth-grade students have been fortunate enough to present their investigations and data results at local, regional, national, and international GLOBE symposiums.”
Music and Spanish language instruction also are a focus at the school. “Our students as early as PreK 4 are learning how movement and music go hand in hand,” Sieg says. Children are taught to read music in kindergarten, and by the time they reach middle school age, they write and compose their own pieces using the instruments they have learned to play.
Spanish language instruction takes place at least once a week for PreK 4 through sixth-grade students, and seventh and eighth graders are taught Spanish every day.
“I feel all these programs in their own way provide our students with very unique opportunities to build confidence in themselves and provide them with opportunities to be comfortable speaking and performing in front of their peers, adults, strangers, and judges,” says Sieg.
The school’s close-knit environment is just as important as the academic aspect. “We truly try to create a family atmosphere within our school. That is my hope—when [families]walk in and tour our school, they can feel that sense of family and community that we strive to create,” she says.
St. Francis Xavier School
465 Table Rock Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325
For Dr. Faye Janine Pleso, CEO and principal of Gettysburg Montessori Charter School, the best part of the day is when she gets to interact with the students, seeing them happy and having fun while learning.
Pediatrician Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered this distinct method of teaching in Italy about a century ago, says Dr. Pleso, and it employs more of a child-centered approach to learning.
“Through her research and extensive observation, [Dr. Montessori] found that children learn best when they are in a peaceful and prepared learning environment that allows for choice and hand-on activities,” Dr. Pleso says. “By giving them choice in learning activities, children become more confident, creative, and inquisitive. Children also learn from each other and through natural consequences.”
Instead of a traditional classroom setting in the school for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, they learn in what is called a Prepared Environment. There, the teacher strategically places educational “works,” similar to stations, and they serve as a facilitator in the classroom. A Montessori classroom is busy but peaceful, Dr. Pleso says, and a culture of grace and courtesy is fostered throughout the school.
The school is unique in that it is also a charter school, which is a public school that the parent chooses. The charter agreement between the school and the Gettysburg Area School District lasts for five years, and then it is reviewed for renewal. “This thorough examination reviews student achievement, progress toward goals, educational programs, school operations and management, professional development, teacher evaluations, financial solvency, school governance, policies and procedures, student enrollment, and more,” says Dr. Pleso.
There are many misconceptions about the Montessori teaching philosophy. “Although we offer students many opportunities for choice in their learning activities, it is not a free for all,” she says. “Since we are a public school, we are required to teach the Pennsylvania Core Standards. We have must-do learning activities that relate to the required standards, and may-do learning activities, which relate to anything a child chooses to do.”
And it’s often thought that a charter school is a private school. “Charter schools are publicly funded, nonsectarian, and nondiscriminatory,” she explains. “They are required to meet state and federal regulations and are governed by a board of directors who are public officials.”
Dr. Pleso appreciates the uniqueness of a Montessori charter school environment. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she says.
Gettysburg Montessori Charter School
888 Coleman Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325
Vida Charter School
Children who attend Vida Charter School in Gettysburg have the opportunity to learn and become fluent in both Spanish and English.
Students in the school, ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade, receive 50 percent of their daily instruction in Spanish and 50 percent in English, learning to read, write, speak, and listen in both languages, says Christine Miller, the school’s executive director.
“Our vision is for our students to become bilingual and bi-literate, to reach high academic standards and to have cross-cultural competence,” she says.
In fact, this dual-language model is Miller’s favorite aspect of the school. “Dual language is a highly effective approach to providing students, from a very young age, with the opportunity to develop language and literacy in their first language and simultaneously in a second language,” she says. “This is a win-win because students from English-speaking homes gain the advantage of developing Spanish fluency at an early age, while students from Spanish-speaking homes build their native language literacy and learn English more effectively.”
In addition to the dual-language component, Vida Charter School focuses on health and wellness, encouraging the students to make healthy food and lifestyle choices each day, she says.
Because charter schools are a fairly new concept in the area, there can be a lack of understanding about how they are operated. “There is a false sense that charter schools are for-profit, run by management companies from afar, and that charters attract staff and families who somehow don’t measure up to other public schools,” says Miller. “This is far from the truth, as our community includes staff and families from many walks of life, from diverse backgrounds, and are dedicated to a high standard of learning.”
Charter school students are held to the same standards as other public school students, says Miller. “Any family choosing to enroll their child in a charter school can expect their child to learn according to Pennsylvania state standards, from certified teachers, and can expect their child to be held to the performance expectations of our state standardized tests (in English) in math, language arts, and science,” she says.
Vida Charter School
120 East Broadway
Gettysburg, PA 17325