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Fast-growing academy gives public education a private-school feel

In John Frothingham's ninth grade math class, John Moccia, 14, of Tewksbury worked through a problem. In John Frothingham's ninth grade math class, John Moccia, 14, of Tewksbury worked through a problem. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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TYNGSBOROUGH — The granite-and-brick building has the feel of a prep school, with strands of ivy crawling on the outside walls in the shadow of the 220-acre, mostly forested campus. While the 80,000-square-foot complex suggests an elite student body, inside is the publicly funded Innovation Academy Charter School, filled with students who have college on their mind.

Located in the former Wang Institute in Tyngsborough, the school was founded 14 years ago by Chelmsford parents who wanted more hands-on learning for their children. Since then, word has spread about its project-oriented teaching style and curriculum, which also includes independent learning programs for each student and an emphasis on public speaking.

That philosophy, plus a no-nonsense approach to academics, has pushed the school’s student body to about 600 students, representing the largest percentage increase in enrollment at a charter school north of Boston in the last decade. The school currently has a waiting list of about 300 children.

Much of the increase has come in the last five years, with the school purchasing the Tyngsborough site for $6 million — using a portion of the state money that it receives each year — and adding a high school.

Consisting mostly of students who left public school districts in Billerica, Chelmsford, and Lowell, students now boast academic scores higher than the state average. In 2009, 87 percent of the charter’s 10th-graders scored proficient or advanced on the English Language Arts MCAS compared to the 81 percent state average. In addition, 92 percent of 10th-graders scored proficient or advanced in the math MCAS, besting the state’s 75 percent average.

“We have a private-school feel with a public-school accountability,’’ said Walter Landberg, Innovation’s executive director.

Students must focus on academic achievement and are not promoted if they average less than a C for the year. They spend about 2.5 hours longer in class each week than traditional school districts. Students who need or want to take a double load of a major course — such as math or English — can do it.

Students also are required to participate in athletics, present academic projects at exhibition nights, and participate in end-of-session programs that range from trips to Martha’s Vineyard to study biology to weeklong backpacking sojourns into the White Mountains.

Kerilyn Jalbert, who is 17 and a senior from Lowell, said she found confidence at the school that she lacked at her previous schools in Lowell and Chelmsford. She believes Innovation’s philosophy of project teaching is a better way to learn and retain information.

“Give us time to learn and help us learn it and we’ll learn it,’’ said Jalbert, who hopes to attend Salem State University. “If you hand us a piece of paper and say memorize everything on this paper, then it’s not going to work. I think the more effective way to learn is chunk by chunk over a span of time.’’