Lip-sync competitions, Hogwarts-style house system round out charter school’s curriculum

High school student Khalid Birch leads a strings class that he created himself at Palmetto Scholars Academy during LEAP Day, a free-wheeling day of clubs, games and unusual classes.

Every other Wednesday at Palmetto Scholars Academy, students try new things. They juggle, learn Swahili, build trebuchets and try out Shakespearean acting.

The program is called LEAP Day (the Learning Extension Achievement Program), and the public charter school in North Charleston is trying it out for the first time this school year after administrators heard about the idea at a conference in California for gifted-and-talented educators. Students request activities for the semester, and every LEAP Day, for the entire day, they rotate between different activities, clubs, classes and competitions.

On a recent LEAP Day in December, teacher Vondina Moseley led a Sustainable Living class in creating such homemade items as lip balm and deodorant. French and Spanish teacher Karin Bomar learned Swahili along with her students using online tutorials and subtitled cartoons. And Khalid Birch, a 10th-grader, led a string band he assembled himself in playing “Deck the Halls.”

Assistant Principal Melissa McCants said the program works well with the school’s mission of serving gifted and talented students from the tri-county area.

“It sounds so un-academic, and I realize that, but you have to have culture and community,” McCants said. “Part of our mission is not just the academic needs of the gifted; it’s the social and emotional needs of the gifted.”

Charter schools such as Palmetto Scholars Academy, which receive public funding and oversight but are given the flexibility to try new ideas, may be on the rise both locally and nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced it plans to give South Carolina more than $30 million to fund the creation of new charter schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act, recently passed by Congress to replace the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, also sets aside funding for new charter schools.

Proponents have likened charter schools to laboratories where administrators and teachers can test new ideas for all public schools to use. McCants, who previously taught in Charleston County and Dorchester District 2, said that’s certainly the case at Palmetto Scholars Academy, a school in the statewide S.C. Public Charter School District.

On a recent LEAP Day, McLordorf, one of the student houses, hosted a lip-sync competition outdoors with loudspeakers blasting holiday songs. The school includes grades 6 through 12, and McCants said they created the Hogwarts-style house system — a sort of modified homeroom — to encourage friendly competition and community in a school with a broad age range. Students can earn points for their houses through Honor Roll membership, community service and competitions, such as a recent sixth-grade girls’ arm-wrestling competition.

McCants said the school will add new classes and clubs in January when they move from their current, crowded location on the Navy Yard to a new building on Dorchester Road. Some, like the chess club, came about because the students asked for them. Others will be back by popular demand, such as an International Book Club that has students chatting with counterparts in Canada and Japan about young-adult novels.

Ashley Walker, a ninth-grader who recently came to PSA from a Dorchester 2 school, said programs such as LEAP Day let her know she was in a different place — a place she could feel at home.

“I don’t feel like that nerdy kid all the time,” she said. “Before, I didn’t feel like I fit in, but they accepted me here.”

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