The Decatur Discovery Academy (DDA) will provide all high school students who choose to attend with the necessary academic background and set of experiences which result in an education that provides the knowledge, motivation, and technical know-how to prepare them to make and follow an intentional choice of career path.
The mission of the DDA is to create a small high school with a non-traditional, personal learning environment in which students are challenged to learn and excel at their own pace through a rigorous inquiry approach to learning. Students will make a personal commitment fostered by an adult mentoring relationship to become goal-oriented, independent learners with a desire for knowledge. This environment will be characterized by rigor, relevance, and relationships and will serve to motivate students to achieve at their highest level. The cumulative effect of these experiences will be graduation from high school and entry into a post-secondary education environment and will result in a successful career path for each student.
The DDA is designed to meet the needs of students who are not experiencing success in the traditional comprehensive high school. The DDA is particularly suited to those students who seem to be lost in a large high school and are not able to find success in that environment. Currently, one large high school is the only secondary school option available in the community. The personal, innovative approach of the DDA will provide an excellent choice for students offering a support system that connects individual styles and needs with relevant learning experiences.
This kind of personal relationship with relevant learning experiences is necessary because young people often enter school with a variety of isolated experiences, many of them negative. They also lack the perseverance, motivation, and discipline to achieve academic success in a traditional secondary school setting. Schools, in turn, often provide limited opportunities for those students who do not see the relevance of school or the need for the traditional academic track. Unfortunately, too many students become disillusioned with school and schooling because the activities and requirements of school do not relate to their world or even meet their needs for skill development. Many schools continue offering the same program in the same style as was developed and imposed during the industrial age when the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy existed, placing students in a lock-step environment. Students were not expected to question or seek understanding or ownership of learning; compliance and complacency were the expected and accepted behaviors. This industrial age model does not and cannot meet the needs of many young people in today’s ever changing and highly complex technical information age.
The Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township is a public school district that is investigating ways of providing schooling in a different approach to students in its community. Located on the southwest side of Marion County in metropolitan Indianapolis, MSD of Decatur Township has one of the largest percentages of low socio-economic levels of the eleven Marion County school districts. Evidence of the at-risk population is represented by the free/reduced lunch percentage for the district of approximately 44%, with two elementary school areas well over 60%. Of added significance, according to the latest census data, Decatur Township has one of the highest percentages of adult populations in Marion County without post-secondary education. With such a large number of students considered at-risk of school failure and coming from homes where many parents have no post-secondary experience, the need is imperative for additional resources to encourage students to be goal-oriented, graduate from high school, and aspire to some form of higher education.
Another sobering statistic for the Decatur community is the number of students that currently leave the high school setting between grade nine and graduation. Entering freshman classes at Decatur Central High School have approximately 400 students. Graduating classes are averaging fewer than 300. In excess of 100 children are leaving formal education within the four years of high school. Although there are several reasons for students’ exiting the high school setting, the truth remains that too many are simply not engaged in the traditional setting and view school as neither an inviting nor valuable experience. Since many families in Decatur Township do not perceive post-secondary education as a priority, let alone a necessity, many young people are allowed to leave high school prior to graduation. Another factor that adds to the strong case for the necessity of another secondary school option is that the GQE passing rate is consistently in the 55 to 60 percent range.
These statistical examples of the Decatur community provide compelling evidence that a non-traditional environment is imperative to the future success of individuals and families on the southwest side of Indianapolis. As part of this non-traditional environment, a variety of rich, relevant experiences need to be provided to young people to prepare them for post-secondary learning experiences. Below is a chart that reflects statistics from the 2000 Census supporting the narrative statements above.
Statistics based on U.S. 2000 Census
Educational Attainment over age 25 in Decatur Township
It is clear from this data that the industrial model of education still used widely today is not adequately preparing many young people in this community for a choice of career paths in today’s high-technology, high-stakes marketplace.
Decatur Discovery Academy – Where Young Minds Explore will be a school that meets the unique needs of students in a personal, non-traditional learning environment. The DDA will focus on students who are not typically successful in a traditional high school environment and who may not be considering a post-secondary experience but possess the potential to do so. The DDA will be established with the philosophy that all students will be prepared for and guided to post-secondary learning experiences. The DDA students in grades 9-12 will include a diverse population comprised of students who would be unlikely to succeed in the typical high school setting. This targeted group may include students who are identified as not reaching their potential and therefore are in danger of dropping out and include ESL, gifted/talented, special education, and minority students. Staff will be specifically selected for their background experience in supporting non-traditional educational settings and an orientation toward providing students a ‘safety net’ of support while also recognizing the importance of fostering independence.
DDA will provide a rigorous, individual learning environment for students who need a different high school setting in order to experience educational success. Educational practices will be grounded in an inquiry-based, experiential approach to learning that fosters student interest and ownership with consideration given to individual learning styles as the primary focus for curriculum planning. The individualized instructional program will be based on current research and best practices shown to meet the needs of non-traditional students and prepare them to enter a post-secondary learning environment.
Selecting and attending a post-secondary institution can be a daunting and overwhelming task even for young people with a great deal of support and experience. Students who lack background knowledge about post-secondary education often do not possess the self-confidence to investigate, let alone enroll in, higher education. The DDA will work collaboratively with higher education institutions, specifically Ivy Tech State College, to provide a range of rich experiences in a supportive environment. The goal of this collaboration will be to facilitate the students’ transition to post-secondary experiences.
With the creation and opening of the Decatur Discovery Academy, students and families will have an option of two different learning environments from which to choose. One, Decatur Central High School, will offer the traditional, comprehensive, urban high school setting. The other, Decatur Discovery Academy, will offer a non-traditional approach to earning a high school diploma and progressing toward a post-secondary education. The student’s family will decide which setting is the most advantageous and beneficial to meet the needs of their child.
Through extensive investigation and exploration by the DDA Advisory Committee that is made up of various stakeholders in the community, MSD of Decatur Township has determined that the Expeditionary Learning (EL) School Reform Model provides the most appropriate framework and support system necessary to fulfill the vision and mission of the DDA. The research based EL model emphasizes learning by doing, with a particular focus on character growth, teamwork, literacy, and inquiry-based instructional practices all in a rigorous academic environment. Teachers develop learning expeditions grounded by curriculum units that connect high-quality academic learning to adventure experiences and service/character development through a series of linked, in-depth investigations.
EL is a proven school reform model, operating in 29 states since 1993. DDA will be the first Expeditionary Learning School to operate in the state of Indiana. The kind of experiences offered by the EL model seem a perfect match for Decatur Township students who do not see the relevance of the traditional high school and do not have extensive background experiences. EL is organized to provide flexibility, thus meeting the unique needs of students in the Decatur Township area. Expeditionary Learning also supports the creation of a strong relationship with Ivy Tech State College in offering post-secondary opportunities before graduation from the Decatur Discovery Academy.
Another important consideration is that DDA will serve as a professional development center for the larger high school. Ideas and programs developed and implemented at the DDA will be shared and possibly replicated at Decatur Central High School. The viable and successful strategies, services, and processes will be made available to the staff and students of DCHS where appropriate. However, certain traits will remain unique to the DDA including the relationship of the small school environment afforded through the “crew” experience, and the relevance, availability, depth, variety, and intensity of enrichment experiences provided through EL learning expeditions and portfolio presentations.