New space, new programs, new approaches

BIG SKY DISCOVERY ACADEMY

The Big Sky Discovery Academy is expanding its programs and its space for the 2017-2018 school year. The 4-year-old independent school has leased the downstairs space previously occupied by High Country Goods in order to provide a separate location with its own entrance for the Academy’s Community Learning Center and high school offerings.

“We began using the space this summer to offer high school geometry and algebra courses to ten high school students who are mostly local, but at least one who will attend high school elsewhere,” said the school’s executive director, Nettie Breuner. “The new space is really perfect for our school and Community Learning Center needs: conveniently located, large and light-filled.”

The academy is using a “mastery” approach utilized by a growing number of schools around the nation, according to Breuner, who just visited the Khan Academy Lab School in Mountain View, California.

“Students access many online resources. Content specialists teach small lessons and check in with individual students to monitor their progress and take questions,” Breuner said. “Students move forward in the subject according to their mastery—taking as long as is needed to really get a geometry concept for instance, or if they understand it right away, moving ahead. Progressing is authentically tied to each student’s mastery and understanding.”

Big Sky Discovery Academy applied a similar approach this summer, using a Lone Peak High School-approved online education provider’s curriculum for the class content while a live teacher took questions, facilitated conversation and taught more difficult concepts.

“Some of our students are finding success in math like they’ve never had before,” said Community Learning Center Director Nancy Sheil. “Students are self-motivated and excited to come to class. They feel like they are truly learning the concepts, and as an added benefit, they are earning good grades. The combination of a self-paced course with the support of the live instructor sets students up for earned success.”

Small group classes in specific subjects, using a pace-it-yourself approach, are particularly helpful for student athletes, ski racers and part-time residents who need a school schedule that works around their needs, but for all students the approach creates a sense of personal goal-setting and ownership over one’s learning. “Some of these courses can fit an entire semester into six weeks,” Sheil said. “They are self-paced, meaning they allow for weeks off in the middle—you can take a year to complete a course if needed as well.”

According to Sheil, having a teacher to act as both content specialist and student advisor, thus keeping the students on track, is essential for most students to excel in online coursework. “This flexibility can be a problem if someone isn’t making sure students are meeting their goals.”

In addition to small group classes for high school, the new space will be used for private teaching, tutoring, ACT and SAT prep, youth and adult English as a Second Language courses, and college prep, as well as a cadre of community-accessible programs for youth and adults, many of which have been supported by individual donors and local foundations.

The academy recently concluded its first session of college application boot camp with seven LPHS seniors, all of whom made major progress completing most of their college application process. Four more are now enrolled, meaning nearly half of the LPHS senior class will be virtually done with college applications when school begins.

“Big Sky Discovery Academy exists to support and fill in the gaps in educational and enrichment programming in the Big Sky community,” said Board President and school founder Karen Maybee. “We are so happy we have more space to help fulfill the needs of our community in addition to our existing early childhood, elementary and middle school programming.”