New charter school fosters individuality and inclusion

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Posted June 17, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler

As the staff of the Ina A. Colen Academy prepare for the school’s opening this August, they envision a place where “everyone belongs, works together and thrives.”

The school will offer its students a project-based education, with an emphasis on Social Emotional Learning. The school will initially open for a population of 214 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, according to newly appointed Principal Annie Avery.

Annie Avery, the new Principal, poses at the Ina A. Colen Academy in Calesa Township in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, June 6, 2022. Avery will be the Principal at the Charter School for elementary and middle school students. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

Avery has been in education for over 25 years, and specializes in early childhood education, education leadership and specific learning disabilities. She has taught a variety of elementary school grade levels, classes for gifted students, and most recently worked in high school administration before being appointed as principal of IACA.

“It’s just an incredible place that I have been chosen to be put in,” Avery said. “I want to have a more family-like atmosphere that we’ve kind of steered away a little bit from lately in the public schools.”

The tuition-free public charter school established by The Colen Family Charitable Trust will have a phased opening and will double in size capacity each year while increasing grade levels to include middle and high school. It will construct new buildings for the upper-level grades on property that has been set aside for development.

The Colen family developed the retirement community of On Top of the World. However, the latest development venture, Calesa Township, is a residential family community being built at Southwest 80th Avenue south of 38th Street.

The IACA is in the Calesa Township development and half of the school’s enrollment will be reserved for students from that neighborhood. The other enrollment half is open for any student to enroll. When enrollment is full students are then entered in a lottery system, which chooses students according to preferences such as proximity and relatives who attend or are employed by the school, Avery said.

She said that the buildings already in place have a capacity of around 890, so in the next couple years alone the school will be able to take in hundreds of new students from nearby schools.

“I think it’s totally easing some of the strain on schools and we can pull numbers on how many kids are coming from each of the schools that are overcrowded,” Avery said. “I wish we could take more [students] our first year but starting small is the way to go.”

While it is part of Marion County Public Schools, the curriculum of the charter school differs slightly from other schools and includes a focus on project-based learning to give students a chance to participate in applied learning.

“Project-based learning is an alternative to textbook-driven instruction and has been proven to yield positive benefits for students of all ages. Students are more motivated to learn gain a deeper understanding of academic content apply skills through practical opportunities and across disciplines,” according to IACA.

In addition to project-based learning, the school also places a great importance on Social Emotional Learning, a curriculum mandated by the state but prioritized more specifically at the academy. The school strives to be Valor Compass approved, a certification that ensures students’ emotional well-being, by its fourth year open.

Social Emotional Learning offers a way for students to learn the skills to effectively identify and communicate their emotions, show empathy, set goals and create good relationships, according to IACA.

These approaches to learning help for students to receive a more comprehensive education beyond the standard of memorization and test-taking, said Kinley Rodgers, strategic partnership executive at Colen Built Development, LLC.

“That is definitely the one thing that educational experience for all kids that will make it feel inclusive and innovative,” Rodgers said. “Having project-based learning and Social Emotional Learning focuses on the whole child, not just learning but their overall well-being…it’s definitely something that’s really unique to have in a school.”

The curriculum isn’t the only unique aspect of IACA, it will also feature common areas with reading material based on age rather than a traditional library. To gather appropriate books for students to read while at school, IACA is hosting a book drive and will invite the community to donate secondhand, lightly used books.

“We’re going to have what’re called ‘book nooks,’ so they’re little areas where kids can come in and check out a library book,” Rodgers said. “They’re going to have couches, so it’s a more relaxed setting for students to read.”

Avery said that the school will release the information on how and where to donate books, and that students will be able to read according to the Accelerated Reader program that is used by most public schools in Marion County.

While the development of the school has been a long time in the making, Avery says that it took a team effort to make it all come together.

“It’s incredible how everyone works together, and we’re getting this done and building this massive, incredible school,” she said. “Marion County has had nothing like it before.”