The ACCEL Day and Evening Academy is aiming to double its enrollment over the next year as it utilizes $1.5 million in grant funding to expand its current services to middle school students in Mobile.
ACCEL opened its doors in 2017 as Alabama’s first tuition-free charter school, with a mission that focuses on personalized educational pathways, more flexible scheduling options and a greater focus on students’ social and emotional well-being in addition to their academic achievements.
Heading into its fourth year of operation, ACCEL has already produced 231 graduates, including 92 seniors in the Class of 2019 — 89 percent of whom were accepted into two- or four-year colleges. The school’s current enrollment is around 330 students in grades nine through 12.
The Alabama Public Charter School Commission authorized ACCEL to expand its services to middle school students in grades six to eight last year. Now, with the help of a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the pro-charter, nonprofit New Schools for Alabama, Headmaster Dr. Jeremiah Newell said ACCEL is on pace to bring middle school students into the fold by the fall of 2021.
According to Newell, one of the challenging things about operating a charter school is that the allocation of state funding is based on student enrollment from the previous years. That means the dollars that follow new students sometimes aren’t available until a year after they enroll.
“So, you can wind up needing five teachers and only having funding for three, but this kind of grant allows you to maintain appropriate class sizes and staffing levels,” Newell said. “For us, it will also cover the cost of some professional development for teachers and additional equipment in our classrooms.”
If the trends in growth ACCEL has seen over the past three years continue, the expansion is expected to more than double the school’s overall enrollment to nearly 800 students. However, that will require ACCEL to expand its footprint past the former ITT Technical Institute campus on Cottage Hill Road.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Newell said the school is close to inking a deal that would secure a separate facility in the city to house middle school students and teachers, but declined to say where that location might be until all the details are finalized. He did say the expansion would “triple” ACCEL’s total available space and also allow the school to add a combo auditorium and gymnasium.
“We’re prioritizing the same kind of things we did when selecting our current campus, like a centralized location that’s easily accessible to care and public transportation,” he added. “Eventually, we want to have a full program, including athletics, that can support the various needs of our students.”
Newell said the addition of middle school grades was a natural next step for ACCEL, because on average middle schools tend to have some of the largest class sizes in Alabama. He said that can make one-on-one time with teachers scarce during a pivotal time in a student’s academic development.
“Middle school is a difficult time for every student, and we want to build a school that gives a level of attention to kids that can really help them meet their academic potential and also address any social or emotional obstacles that might be occurring at that age,” Newell said. “We’ve seen the tremendous gains our students are making in school, but imagine how far young people could get if we got to them even earlier? If you have them in middle school, you can get them even further in high school.”
At a time when COVID-19 has caused much uncertainty about students returning to school, ACCEL will likely be offering the only tuition-free, in-person learning experience in Mobile when classes resume on Aug. 24. However, Newell said the school will also be offering virtual and night school to give parents options and allow for greater social distancing during the in-person classes that do occur.
The details are still being ironed out, but Newell said early numbers indicate around 65 to 70 percent of ACCEL students are going to start with virtual classes this fall. Similar to other systems, ACCEL’s virtual options will be synchronous with the school’s normal, in-person class schedule. According to Newell, that can help students keep a stronger sense of normalcy and remain more engaged in their studies.
“That will allow students to connect to the classroom through Zoom and interact with their fellow students and teachers,” he added. “This is a truly blended classroom, and we think that will be important to help prevent students from getting behind academically. You can only get so far with engagement and the depth of learning when a student is only interfacing with a computer.”
For ACCEL students who return for in-person instruction, class sizes are expected to be limited to 10 to 12 students, with even smaller groups of six to seven students scheduled for its evening options. Like other systems bringing students back to school, ACCEL plans to use enhanced sanitation practices, require students and faculty to wear face coverings and practice social distancing in the classroom.
According to Newell, there are still some remaining spaces students can register for at the charter school. Interested parents can sign up on the “interest list” at accelacademymobile.com, and Newell said the school is willing to accept applications for new students into the fall semester.
“I think we’re in a good position, and we’ve added some additional team members to help in supporting distance and virtual learning,” Newell added. “I think we’re in the best situation we can be in. There’s still a lot of unknowns as we open, but we’re going to have all the safety features and practices in place that we know will help protect our students, our staff members and their families.”
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