Online learning a regular feature of BV Prep's new high school

Online learning a regular feature of BV Prep's new high school

He spent a year designing the new Blackstone Valley Prep's high school and now Jonathan Santos Silva, 30, is its first head of school. T-shirts are typical of the fashion favored by other administrators working in the charter school's operations center in Pawtucket. (Valley Breeze photos by Marcia Green)

CUMBERLAND - When the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy's high school opens to 100 9th-graders this fall, it will be the first, says Head of School Jonathan Santos Silva, to make extensive use of online learning courses that supplement traditional classroom settings.

Santos Silva told The Breeze last week that he's devoted a full year to designing the charter school system's high school by traveling the nation to observe what works best in a "blended learning" plan that sees every student issued a personal laptop for use in conjunction with traditional student-teacher interaction.

The school is getting its start on the second floor of the former St. Joan of Arc Church school building in Cumberland Hill. The space is smaller than hoped for, and well outside of BV Prep's Pawtucket-Valley Falls epicenter, but Santos Silva is saying the limitations are "not insurmountable."

He says he's taking rooms that were used for religious education and "with a little ingenuity, we'll wire a classroom for science or set up an art studio. It's going to be a tight squeeze and we'll have to be creative," he said, right down to using, perhaps, Stanford University's folding 50-cent microscopes - called Foldscopes.

The initial year will see eight to 10 teachers and administrators working out of five classrooms and one teachers' room, says the new head of school.

Gym classes will be held at St. James Church in Manville and athletic fields are still being decided. Early years will likely see the school fielding small freshmen and junior varsity sports teams.

This new high school will not be immediately accredited, although Santos Silva acknowledges that's a college application form checkoff that's generally key.

Instead, he admits it's "a leap of faith" for the parents to send children to an unaccredited school but says he's promising to provide all that the accredited schools offer.

Ninety percent of the 80 current BV Prep 8th-graders will be attending the new high school, he said, with additional new students selected during a lottery held earlier this spring.

Santos Silva comes from Massachusetts and graduated from the School of Business at Northeastern University.

He taught math at a Bureau of Indian Education school on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota before moving to Rhode Island to be a new teachers' coach for grades kindergarten to 12.

(Videos of the school's other founders are at: www.blackstonevalleyprep.org/our-schools/high-school .)

School planning by 30-year-old Santos Silva and other mostly young, T-shirted educators has been ongoing at the 560 Mineral Spring Avenue headquarters of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, an old industrial setting with open space they've liberally decorated in college pennants.

The high school, like the other mayoral academy schools, is drawing students from four communities with the first graduating class at 35 percent from Central Falls, 30 percent from Pawtucket, 28 percent from Cumberland and 7 percent from Lincoln.

Joining the 9th-graders will be some Blackstone Valley Prep 3rd-graders who had expected to move into their now-delayed elementary school at 52 Broad St., Cumberland. (Others planning on using the Broad Street school this fall are remaining at the Our Lady of Fatima Church rental classrooms.)

Meanwhile, the first-floor nursery school already onsite at the St. Joan church property will continue for another year.

The high school is one of seven Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy schools - three elementary and three middle - operating currently or planned for the same four communities.

The 2014-15 BV Prep budget was still being finalized this week, according to Jen LoPiccolo, spokeswoman.

Plans for this fall's opening are coming together as the leaders learn Blackstone Valley Prep is one of only 16 schools to win a $450,000 Next Generation Learning Challenge grant to help launch the school.

NGLC had previously awarded the school $100,000 for the "high school from scratch" planning of the past year. Forty-five had applied for the new round with just the 16 selected.

The grant comes with a matching challenge that's been partly fulfilled with $50,000 from the Rhode Island Foundation and $70,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Among the lessons learned during the year, says Santos Silva, is that online learning is effective for some academic areas, but not for others. For example, while math skills may be readily learned on an individualized, self-paced basis, English classes need the interaction of classmates.

The Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy's first high-schoolers will mix and match uniforms that feature the blue, gray and beige colors of the school. Head of School Jonathan Santos Silva says the students selected the styles that range from T-shirts and athletic gear to a blazer and tie.