By Michael Reed
Valley Voices Staff Writer
As 15-year-old Corey Purvis gazed out over the scenic overlook, he saw more than the dense trees and wide stream that filled the landscape. "Everywhere you go here," he said with a wide sweep of his arm, "is a part of my school."
Corey's school is Ivy Academy, one of Hamilton County's first charter schools. Ivy opened its doors this year to ninth-graders with approval from the Tennessee Board of Education after appealing repeated denials by the Hamilton County Board of Education.
Located in Soddy-Daisy on 40 acres adjacent to 7,000 acres of state protected property in North Chickamauga, Ivy Academy's teaching philosophy is based on the idea that learning should reach beyond classroom walls.
Marie Daly, the school's founder, wanted to teach in a more individualized setting that would draw upon nature as the main resource for course content. "I couldn't find a school like this within driving distance of Chattanooga," she said. "So I had to start one."
As an environmentally themed school, most classes are taught outdoors, and nature is infused throughout the curriculum.
"Some people coming here might think of a classroom as chairs, desks ... But when you come here you got to think of school as outdoors," said student Tony Williams.
Ms. Daly said students spend 50 percent to 60 percent of their day outside.
For some, the emphasis on nature has led to a greater respect for the environment.
"I used to litter a lot," said Charlie Tabley. "Now I've learned that if you see trash, pick it up."
But it's not just the outdoors that appeals to Ivy students. With a maximum class size of 14, students find it easier to learn. In Tennessee public high schools, classes can have as many as 35 students.
"The teachers work more with you," said Ivy student Nick Helton. "They're not laid-back. They want to teach you. And if you need help, they'll be there for you."
Enrollment at Ivy Academy is limited to students who are zoned for schools designated as failing, who have failed a core Gateway or TCAP exam, or who are eligible for free and reduced lunches.
AT A GLANCE
Location: 8443 Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy.
What: A tuition-free public charter school.
More info: ivyacademychattanooga.com or 305-7494.
What's next? Ivy will add one additional grade level each year until it becomes a four-year high school. Applications are being accepted for ninth and tenth grades for the 2010-2011 school year.
Charter schools can be controversial because they are funded with tax dollars that follow each student. Locally, Hamilton County Schools project an $8.6 million deficit for their 2011 budget, which includes eliminating 41 teaching positions. Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith said there was no connection between the current loss of jobs and the money that is appropriated for charter schools.
Last year, high school students attending Ooltewah, Soddy-Daisy, Lookout Valley, Howard, Central and Red Bank were eligible for charter school admission. All schools had failed to make yearly adequate progress. Data from recent state testing will not be available on Ivy Academy until later this summer.
Soddy-Daisy High School principal John Maynard said the reason his school is on the list is because they failed to meet graduation rates for the past three years.
"(We missed) the first year by four students, the second by eight students, and the third by 12 students," he said.
Currently Tennessee ranks 42nd out of 50 states in education.
Tennessee State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, foresees a future expansion of the charter school movement in Hamilton County and has attempted to pass legislation to make attendance open to everyone.
"This should help improve all schools, because each school will have to compete for students and improve their school to attract them," he said.
Attending a charter school has served Corey Purvis well.
"Here I feel more responsible," he said. "I used to make F's, and now I make A's. I'm really proud of myself."
Michael Reed is a student at Center for Creative Arts.