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Whitewater to open county's first charter grade school



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March 09, 2011 | 08:29 AM
Whitewater — Starting next school year, Lincoln School will convert to LINCS, a new charter school, and what may be the first elementary public charter school in Walworth County.

LINCS stands for Lincoln Inquiry Charter School. The name was chosen to retain connection to the Lincoln Elementary School, said Jo Bernhardt, who is now principal of Lincoln and will be principal at LINCS.

Bernhardt said plans for the new charter school started in November 2009, when the newly-hired superintendent, Suzanne Zentner, announced she wanted the district to focus on 21st century learning.

Listening sessions with parents were held and out of that came discussions about charter schools, Bernhardt said.

Lincoln was chosen as the site of the charter school by a leadership team, which reviewed the possible sites of a charter school within the district.

"It is a diverse school close to the University," Bernhardt said. "It has connections with the University and connections with surrounding community."

The Whitewater district has received a $250,000 grant through the state for teacher and professional development at the school, and the district will apply for another $250,000 to cover start-up costs, Bernhardt said.

LINCS will still be a public school, but its policies and procedures will be guided by a governance council that has a five-year contract with the Whitewater School Board.

The board gives the school autonomy. In return, the school will have to meet certain performance standards or the five-year contract may not be renewed.

In many ways, the new LINCS school will look just like Lincoln School, Bernhardt said.

"If you walked in, it would look like a public school building," she said.

The teachers will still be paid by the Whitewater School District and they will still be members of the local teachers union.

The advantage of the charter school is that it can move in different directions in curriculum than the rest of the school district. Starting next school year, the LINCS curriculum will be tied to the Inquiry Model of teaching.

Inquiry learning is very close to scientific inquiry, Bernhardt said. The process can be never-ending, as students' investigations lead to questions, and those questions require more study which leads to more questions that require further inquiry.

Bernhardt said the teachers will guide the process by directing the initial directions taken by the students' inquiries. Where they lead will depend largely on the students' research, as their developing interests lead them further into the topics, Bernhardt said.

"You always learn more when you're motivated," she said.

Students today become adept at an early age to use computer tools like Google to find information, Bernhardt said.

"We'll be buying laptops so kids can do their research," she added.

In addition to Inquiry Method teaching, the school will have multi-age classrooms.

Multi-age classrooms are the deliberate mixing of students of different ages in the same classroom, Bernhardt said. It also puts the same students with the same teachers for two years, giving students and teachers a chance to know each other better and improve the inquiry learning process, Bernhardt said. The school will have about 370 students and there will be 20 classroom teachers.

All of the teachers and students will be attending the school by choice.

Parents who want their children to attend LINCS will have to register them, Bernhardt said.

Students living in the Lincoln school area will have priority, but children from other elementary school areas will also be allowed to apply, Bernhardt said. Parents who don't wish to participate in the charter school project will have their children attend Washington or Lakeview elementary schools.

This will be the second charter school in Walworth County.

The first is the Alternative High School, 400 Highway H, Elkhorn. Founded about 20 years ago, it serves Badger, Big Foot, Delavan-Darien, Elkhorn-Area, and Williams Bay high schools in cooperation with Gateway Technical College.

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