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In August, Mississippi will allow charter schools to open for the first time in state history.
After a rigorous application process, just two were approved to open their doors – Reimagine Prep and Midtown Public Charter School. Both will be located in Jackson, the state capital.
Charters follow the same academic standards as traditional public schools, but because they are independent of the district, they allow more freedom in student instruction. This is why Midtown Public will have an extended school day, running from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Wednesdays students will be dismissed early and teachers will stay for professional development.
The Hechinger Report spoke with Babak Mostaghimi, primary advisor to the Midtown Public Charter School board of trustees within Midtown Partners, Inc., the non-profit group who filed the school’s charter application. The new charter will open for the 2015-16 school year with 104 fifth and sixth-grade students, and eventually serve grades 5 through 8.
Q: How is this school different from other schools in the Jackson Public School District?
A: Midtown Public’s entire model is very different from a traditional school environment. It starts off with the basic premise of what we call a “warm strict model.” And that’s where you have structure during the day which is obviously the strict part, but you embrace this warm idea of creating a family environment where all kids feel surrounded with people who want them to succeed.
Q: What’s one big difference students will see in this charter school?
A: Usually by middle school kids are in classrooms for one subject per period with one teacher, and then they rotate to the next one. We actually have self-contained classrooms where 26 kids are with their cohort for the duration of the day. They have two primary lead teachers who take care of those core subjects. So our entire model of having 26 kids for the entire year with two teachers makes it so that those teachers get to know those children very, very directly.
Q: The other charter, Reimagine Prep, is putting a heavy emphasis on coding courses built into their curriculum. Will Midtown’s curriculum put a focus on science courses too?
A: One of the big focuses at our school is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. What we’re trying to do is really build a STEM mindset around kids where from the beginning they realize that they can solve the major challenges of our time. We’re going to have very strong math and science subjects as part of our core curriculum where we’ll be doing a lot more hands on than you would do at the 5th grade level. So we’re looking to take kids further away from worksheets and just sitting down and reading a textbook, and much more into experiential, project based learning so they can really get a sense of how things work and those things will translate over into the test scores.
Q: Nationally, a lot of charters have a bad reputation for having strict disciplinary policies. Where do you guys fall in that aspect?
A: We do not believe in the charter model that people vilify, which is students in straight lines walking on a taped line in the middle of the hallway where it feels more like a prison than a school. We feel like that doesn’t prepare students for the real world. With our warm strict model, yes we are strict in the sense that we do have uniforms. But that’s less about discipline and more about making sure our students have access to clothing that wealthier kids aren’t differentiated from less wealthy kids by virtue of what clothes they can afford and those sorts of things. Our students need to be making sure to do their work and being on task if they’re going to be ready to succeed in life. We do believe in having structure, but at the same time we believe it should be structure that we would want for our own children, which means we’re also making sure there is a very heavy dose of that love and warmth and that’s a big part of our model.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.