New charter school focuses on expeditionary learning

IRONDEQUOIT — The new year will bring a new educational choice for Rochester-area students and their families.

The state education department gave the Discovery Charter School the go-ahead last month. The school will employ an expeditionary model that also is in place in several schools in the city — including the Rochester City School District’s World of Inquiry School No. 58, School Without Walls Foundation and the Walter Cooper Academy as well as Genesee Community Charter School, which is located on the Rochester Museum and Science Center campus.

The Discovery school will be located in the south wing at Bishop Kearney High School. The charter school’s board of directors signed a lease Dec. 17, said Grace Tillinghast, one of the founding committee members. The wing will continue to house the Derech Hatorah school, but the two schools will have independent space, said Bishop Kearney President Donna DeDee. The wing also has been the site of temporary classrooms for Irondequoit students when the district went through a remodel as well as a former diocesan junior high school, Tillinghast explained.

"That’s the beauty of it when I thought about it," she said. "This is a school complete with classrooms and lockers. … It’s not a building that going to be reworked into a school."

The committee has been working for more than a year and a half to make the charter school a reality, she said. Its members include David Vigren, former treasurer for Eastman Kodak Co., and Dan Aureli, an Irondequoit attorney.

The announcement of the new charter school came on the heels of news that Rochester was one of nine cities to join the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s District/Charter Collaboration Compact. Its goal is to bring together school-district and charter-school leaders to share ideas and strive to improve the education of all students in those cities, according to Rochester district officials.

Discovery board members and Rochester district officials were planning to meet to discuss the new school’s joining the compact, said district spokesman Tom Petronio.

"We would welcome (Discovery’s) participation," he said. "Expeditionary learning has an excellent track record in Rochester’s schools. … Another opportunity for students to experience this unique and successful educational model would be a boon for families in the Rochester area."

It was Vigren who first approached her "out of the blue" with the idea, Tillinghast commented. Both had been volunteers in city schools through their work at Kodak. Tillinghast also is owner of The Battery sports training facility in Gates and teaches Spanish on a volunteer basis at St. Pius Tenth School in Chili.

"It’s always been in my blood," the Argentina native said of teaching. "I don’t see (city) kids getting what they should get."

Children living in such urban districts as Rochester’s should not lack for the education they are entitled to as Americans, she said.

"They have a right to learn," Tillinghast said. "They have a right to resources. They have a right to teachers. They have a right to become somebody."

With a graduation rate of 46 percent in 2009, the city school district is not equipping its students with the skills they need to become successful in society, she added.

"If they are illiterate, they are not functioning," she remarked.

Vigren said that is exactly why he began the long state process of starting a charter school.

"I see a need to offer at-risk children an opportunity to succeed in life," he stated in an e-mail. "There are far too many nonperforming schools in our community and there is a city graduation rate that is embarrassingly low."

He went with the charter school concept because of the success achieved by the city’s two other elementary charter schools.

"Charter schools offer parents a public school choice," Vigren added.

The Discovery school will initially open for children in grades kindergarten through second, and there are plans to add a grade level each year, Tillinghast explained. It will be open to all students in the area, and if more than 40 applications are received per grade level, students will be chosen through a lottery process, she added.

State aid will follow the student with two-thirds of the money going to the school and the rest to the student’s home district.

The expeditionary model is now found in 165 schools in 30 states, according to Of those schools, 35 percent are charter schools. The Expeditionary Learning organization found that students in these schools outperformed students in nonexpeditionary schools in math and English language arts, according to the website.

Tillinghast said that the committee studied the model extensively — visiting school in Rochester and Niagara Falls — before choosing that curriculum for the Discovery school. Committee members were impressed by the use of all subject areas — history, geography, writing, science and math — in students’ research projects and presentations tailored to the grade level.

The Discovery school’s committee, which will become the board of directors, will need to fill 41 positions before the school opens in August, Tillinghast said. In addition to a longer school year, the school day will be longer and teachers will remain with students for two years.

The expeditionary learning model has worked well for Roberta Brunelle’s two children at School No. 58. Before the children began kindergarten, the family looked around for a school and was immediately impressed when walking into the building.

"It made all the other schools pale in comparison," said Brunelle, who now is a teacher’s aid at the school as well as president of the Parent Teacher Organization. "It’s a whole different culture. I know it’s small but everyone knew everyone. And the students’ projects … were phenomenal."

Now, her daughter, Marjorie, is in fourth grade and her son, Alex, is in eighth grade. Brunelle said that she is glad that the school will add a grade each year through high school so her children can continue with expeditionary learning.

"The kids are excited about learning," Brunelle remarked. "Every kid does better with hands-on stuff than a worksheet."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Discovery Charter School, call 585-342-4032 or visit

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