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New Charleston charter school emphasizes personalized learning through technology

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New Charleston charter school emphasizes personalized learning through technology

First-grader Lillian Ledbetter sings along to a tune Tuesday at Carolina Voyager Charter School. The school opened last week in downtown Charleston with grades K-2.

Jessica Hardesty Norris hadn't planned on sending her 5-year-old daughter, Jo, to a charter school.

She was looking forward to sending her daughter to her neighborhood school on James Island and participating in that school's community. But when the mother of a friend of Jo's said she had enrolled her child at a new charter school opening in downtown Charleston, Norris quickly did some online investigating and scheduling a meeting there Aug. 18. Her daughter started kindergarten at Carolina Voyager Charter School the next day.

"It's been fantastic," Norris said of her daughter's first week at the new school.

Carolina Voyager opened Aug. 18 on the campus of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Race Street. The school has around 67 students enrolled in grades K-2, and runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 2:30 p.m. on Friday. An after-school program run by Tech Savvy Kids operates until 6 p.m. all five days.

School Leader Harry Walker said the school can accept up to 88 students this school year and still has spots available. The school will add a grade per year until it reaches the eighth grade for a total enrollment of around 450 students, Walker said.

Carolina Voyager is chartered through the Charleston County School District and is the only new charter school to open in the county this school year. There is no admissions requirements other than students must live in Charleston County.

Walker, whose role is similar to a principal, said what makes Carolina Voyager different is its focus on "blended learning," which combines traditional teaching with targeted use of technology.

Every student has an iPad and is assigned digital lessons through educational software that can increase or decrease the rigor of the assignment based on student performance, Walker said. The software saves data on student performance, which allows teachers to better target each student's needs, he said.

"It's not about giving kids iPads and expecting them to increase achievement," Walker said. "It's about meeting kids where they are and then attending to them based on what their needs are."

Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Plimpton feels the data the digital lessons provide will help teachers be more flexible and targeted in their lessons.

"It's going to make the planning a lot more productive and it's great that parents can log on and know what we were working on in the classroom," she said.

The technology aspect is intriguing, but for Norris the things that sold her on the school were practical.

"I think what really tipped me over in part was the 8-to-4 school day and the possibility of continuation through middle school," she said.

Norris said what's impressed her the most is how accessible and attentive the teachers have been.

"They're so nimble," she said. "They can be responsive to any kid."

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