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A group of Madison parents and educators who say they're frustrated by larger class sizes and the emphasis on test scores in the public schools plan to start a new private high school next year.

The Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy is modeled on similar schools in other states and a charter school in Kenosha that allow students to learn through projects, field work and lessons that integrate art, engineering, mathematics, science and technology.

The school plans to feature an engineering lab where students can design and fabricate products, such as a piece of furniture. The idea is to adapt school to what adults experience in the modern work world, said Michelle Sharpswain, who is leading the development of the school.

"Our goal with this high school is for kids to never need to say, 'When will I ever need to know this?'" Sharpswain said.

The goal is for the school to start with about 40 ninth-graders next year and eventually enroll 320 students in grades 9-12. Tuition will be in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 a year, slightly more than Edgewood High School but less than Madison Country Day School.

If it enrolls that many students, it would be the second-largest private high school in Dane County behind Edgewood. Abundant Life Christian School with about 60 high school students is currently the second-largest, according to data reported to the Department of Public Instruction.

Organizers are still trying to find a location for the school, preferably close to Downtown, Sharpswain said.

Sharpswain held meetings in spring 2010 to find out what another high school in the Madison area might look like. Participants wanted a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum, a highly qualified staff who like teenagers, and subject matter that connects to the real world, among other things.

The school's project-based learning model would be similar to public charter high schools in the Monona Grove and Middleton-Cross Plains school districts and to one set to open next fall in Verona. Unlike those schools, however, its "expeditionary learning" approach is based on a national model developed in 1992 and now used in more than 150 schools in 30 states. Fewer than 10 of those are private schools, Sharpswain said.

Barbara Perkins, whose daughter might attend the new school next fall, has home-schooled her three children because she said the public schools don't provide enough individualized instruction. Her daughter, who wants to be a writer, is interested in the ability to develop her own senior year project at the school.

"It puts more responsibility and more real-world experience to the kids to be able … to articulate a project, being able to complete a project and being able to work across age-group teams of people," Perkins said. "Sometimes school doesn't address those needs."

The Madison School District has been grappling with how to meet the demand for alternative education models. Teachers at Toki Middle School have been developing an expeditionary learning model at the school for the past two years and this fall petitioned the School Board to convert the school into a charter school. According to their application, schools in New York using expeditionary learning models made progress in raising achievement levels of low-income and minority students.

The district advised the board to hold off on considering the application until its charter school policy is rewritten, said Joe Gothard, assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

Gothard acknowledged class sizes and testing can be a challenge for public schools given budget constraints and mandated curriculum, but he said Madison prides itself on innovation.

"We have innovative teachers who are practicing different ways of meeting our student needs all the time," Gothard said. "The notion of a rectangular classroom with a teacher delivering a lecture at a chalkboard is a thing of the past."

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