When a student at the Acceleration (ACCEL) Day and Evening Academy told Superintendent Jeremiah Newell he was nervous at orientation, Newell asked, “What’s to be nervous about? We’re just building an entire school from the ground up!”

That combination of nervousness and excitement has been a background theme for teachers and administrators as ACCEL prepares to open the doors of Alabama’s first tuition-free public charter school Aug. 21.

With targeted enrollment of 300 students, ACCEL has billed itself as being focused on the individual needs of students both in and out of the classroom — an idea spurred by successful programs launched by its parent company, the nonprofit Mobile Area Education Foundation (MAEF).

ACCEL has already seen students enroll from public, private and home-based institutions, but CEO Carolyn Akers said MAEF had to paddle against a current of opinion in national discussions about the role charter schools should play in public education.

“You hear people talking about ‘creaming kids,’ where they’re taking children off the top of other school systems and putting them into charter schools, but that was never our design here,” Akers told Lagniappe. “Our purpose has always been to meet the needs of those students for whom the regular public school system has just not worked.”

New to Alabama, charter schools are publicly funded but operated by independent organizations. They’re bound by a contract that sets specific academic goals or emphasizes a specific student population. At ACCEL, the focus is on those students who require flexibility.

With day and night classes available, individualized educational plans and a curriculum that lets students drive their own progress, Akers said ACCEL is designed to serve a range of students, from those who are behind in credits to those looking to accelerate through high school faster.

It will host students in grades 9-12, though administrators say the curriculum will put more emphasis on “phases of learning” than numerical grade levels. However, overall, Newel said, most things about the way ACCEL functions will not be too different from other public schools.

The curriculum will follow the same standards and the system will have to meet the same state requirements for testing and student achievement. It will also be subject to the Alabama Accountability Act, which produces the annual “failing schools” list based on state test scores.

ACCEL also falls under the purview of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, which can renew or revoke the charter allowing it to operate. Newell said the state has also been clear “there are eyes on” on Mobile, adding “the future of charters could very well depend upon whether the first few schools do a good job.”

“If we don’t meet our performance metrics as a charter, we can be closed, and that doesn’t happen in a normal public school,” he said. “Usually, if a school is failing, it just keeps failing.”

Curriculum at ACCEL will focus on college and career readiness. While ACCEL doesn’t yet have some of the career programs other systems have spent millions investing in, it does have a number of business and industry partners MAEF has worked with in the past. Akers said those relationships could lead to student “internships and apprenticeships” down the road.

Another difference is how ACCEL students will reach their academic goals, which can be tailored to the individual student. If a student needs extra support or time, Newell said, ACCEL has the option of flexible hours and customized schedules.

Technology will also allow ACCEL to differentiate student instruction. Using electronic platforms with custom learning progressions, Newell said students will be able to do “pre-work” before they get in front of a teacher and “post-work” afterward — all at their own individual pace.

“Motivation will definitely matter here, but student motivation matters in learning no matter what kind of school you’re in,” Newell said. “We’re trying to provide students with tools to help them stay motivated and to create ownership, while giving teachers the data and structure they need to reach those students where they are.”

To recruit the best teachers, Newell said ACCEL chose to offer its employees participation in the Alabama’s Teachers Retirement System and the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan. However, a key difference is ACCEL will not offer tenure status to any of its employees — including Newell.

“Everybody willingly took that on because we believe our students and our teachers all deserve the best working space possible, and if there needs to be a shift, we have to be able to do that,” he said. “We’re all at-will employees. We believe we’re coming in every morning to do a great job, but if it’s not working, it’s just not working.”

Since its charter was approved last fall, MAEF has been working to build the school system from scratch. Without state funding, it secured and furnished the school’s location in the former ITT Technical Institute campus at 3100 Cottage Hill Road.

According to Akers, MAEF foundations and corporate contributions have covered ACCEL’s expenses to date, though the school is slated to receive state funding based on its student enrollment when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Akers said MAEF has “absolutely no interest in developing a school that isn’t top notch,” adding that despite taking on Alabama’s first charter school, the organization would continue to facilitate programs in other public schools as it has for the past 25 years.

“There are folks who feel this is competitive. I think there are others who don’t totally understand the concept of charter schools and who surely don’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish here. We hope by standing this up and getting it moving this year they’ll start seeing that it is making a difference for this small group of kids that have elected to be here,” Akers said. “We talk a lot in this country about ‘choice’ in education, but the way we think about it, this isn’t a choice — it’s really a chance. A chance for these students to succeed.”