Learn by doing

The Charter School celebrates 25 years of self-directed learning.

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“Main Street” is the center of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, its entryway, meeting space, library, and more. It’s a place where things happen. There, the school community gathers every morning, with students ranging in age from kindergarten through high school. The school bell signals the beginning of the meeting, then there are announcements, celebrations, and students sharing the news from their lives. After the meeting, the students disperse to small advisory groups of about 12 students who meet with their teacher at the beginning and end of each day. In between, there are regular classes, opportunities in the wider Island community, and self-directed learning.

The school began as an idea discussed among friends. “It started around a kitchen table,” says Claudia Ewing. She was part of a group of parents who were also educators, who talked about having a different kind of school here. They gathered at each other’s homes, informally at first. In 1993, they heard about a conference in Boston where they could learn more about the concept of charter schools. A charter school is a publicly funded school that is established by teachers, parents, or a community group under the terms of a charter. It can have a different curriculum from regular public schools, but it must still uphold standards, and is subject to regular and thorough inspection by the state. Massachusetts was one of the first states to establish such schools. 

The Vineyard group drove up to Boston for the daylong conference, and when they came back they turned themselves into a steering committee with the goal of creating a public charter school here. They reached out to the wider Island community for input, developed the idea, and sent off their application. The process took a few years — their first application was rejected, but the second one was approved. When the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School opened, it was one of only about 10 charter schools in the state, and it’s still one of only a small number of K-12 schools.

Roberta Kirn was a member of those early committees, and has remained involved in the decades since as a parent and music teacher. “My daughter Kayla was the Charter School baby,” she says. “I was pregnant when we were having meetings, and then she would scoot around on the floor.” The school started with only 60 students in a few grades, fourth through eighth. “We needed to start a little smaller, but with the idea that we would be a K-12 eventually,” Kirn says. “It was a building with trailers coming off the main hallway, Main Street, which were eventually replaced by classrooms. All the furniture was donated by people. Putting the school together on opening day was done by volunteers, parents, and students. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in.”

During that first year, students spent a lot of time in the central hallway, doing self-directed learning, writing poetry, and playing jacks, according to one alum. Administrative work was a challenge — the founders had thought that the school’s six teachers would handle it cooperatively, but there was simply too much to do. Claudia Ewing became the school’s office manager, and Bob Moore was the school’s director for 20 years. “You learn by doing. And our kids at the Charter School, much of their day is doing, actively engaged in learning,” Moore says. “We embrace the voice of the child, we want to hear the voice of the child, we want them to raise their hands, we want them to participate so that when they’re older they’ll be participants in the community.”

“Ultimately the school still lives up to its principles, that self-directed learning is the best,” Ewing says. Many of the programs that the school pioneered on the Vineyard — mentorship, project period, and electives for young kids — have been picked up by other Island schools. This was one of the ideas behind charter schools, that they could be places to try out new educational ideas. 

Jonah Maidoff was hired to teach social studies during the school’s first year, and has been there ever since, leading trips to Italy and waxing enthusiastic about the school and its mission. “We’re doing hands-on learning, our middle school is doing expeditionary learning, doing community engagement, which is part of our mission, being out there and being in the community,” Maidoff says. He says that the school community is very tight-knit, although there have been challenges and changes. “The last two years have been very difficult, not being able to get together in the way that we did,” he says. 

COVID also interrupted the trips to Italy, which started in 2002, right after the attack on the World Trade Center. The trip resumed this spring. Another international connection has come through the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which the school recently introduced for its upper grades. “With the IB, there’s a career pathway which is engaging in real-world, practical stuff, either learning a profession or getting college credit,” Maidoff says. “We still do mentorships, but there’s also an additional requirement to do community action and service, it’s much more moderated and reflective.” The IB diploma program is intellectually rigorous, and is graded based on a combination of exams and substantial research papers. The papers are reviewed by evaluators in other IB schools, as well as the Charter School teachers.

Peter Steedman was hired as the school’s director in 2018, and had previously worked at other IB schools. “A lot of International Baccalaureate is very project-based, and has students doing their own thing,” Steedman says. “Anything we do, we try to solidify what the founders had in mind for the school: student-directed learning, with interdependence, understanding their part in the larger community. We’re making sure our pillars stay central to who we are.” Those pillars — Trust, Respect, Freedom, Responsibility, Democracy, and Cooperation — were established by consensus in the school’s second year. “Our ideals are to connect, not to be isolated,” Steedman says. 

The school has grown since its early years, and now has up to 180 students in grades K-12. Although most students are from the Island, a few come over from Falmouth because they value the welcoming and inclusive community they find here. The graduating classes are small, but that’s a good thing, says Roberta Kirn. “It’s very moving. It’s like what every high school graduation should be like,” she says. “The biggest class is maybe 12 kids. Everyone is recognized as an individual. You get this feeling that people are really seen and supported. There’s a really strong sense of community.” 

That community will gather to celebrate its 25th anniversary on June 4, and the graduation of this year’s high school class on June 5. With its ever-evolving programs based on central ideals and community connections, the M.V. Public Charter School is thriving as it enters its next quarter-century.