“It’s a pretty special place,” said Middle School Dean of Students, Charlene LaRoche.
IACS is turning 20 years old, celebrating being open from 1996 to 2016. IACS was made to prepare young minds for the real world, during and after their high school experience. IACS wanted preparation to be a focus. Think back to our four outcomes; effective communication, self-direction, problem solving, and community membership. Every day those outcomes are used at IACS, it is accomplishing the goals of IACS that were made when the school first started.
The Very Beginning…
IACS came to be because of parents of middle school students wanting to start a new school in Chelmsford. “They got together and they named themselves the Chelmsford Alliance for Education,” Head of School, Greg Orpen said about the group. Those parents felt the need to form a group to help the education in Chelmsford because they did not think middle schools were offering the best education they could. They wanted to establish a new school that would offer the best education to students so they founded a charter school. To start the school the parents needed to write a charter that stated what they wanted the school to accomplish. The criteria that was important to this group was being prepared for the real world, making connections, and developing community skills. These ideas are reflected in IACS’s Mission and Charter, “interdisciplinary education that will prepare them for the twenty-first century through an emphasis on holistic learning, higher order and critical thinking skills and practical application and integration of curriculum areas.” After the state agreed to the Chelmsford Alliance for Education’s charter, the school was born. The school was opened in 1996 on 197 Littleton Rd, Chelmsford. The school was not always known as Innovation Academy Charter School though. The school was originally named Murdoch Middle School, named after Lynn Murdoch and offering grades 5-8. The school then moved to a second location on 40 Brick Kiln Rd in Chelmsford. After, when the school started a high school, it moved to the Chelmsford Center for the Arts for one year. In 2008, Boston University sold their Tyngsboro campus on 72 Tyng Rd, Tyngsboro to the school. Murdoch Middle School moved to their new school and continued to offer a high school. Soon Murdoch Middle School became Innovation Academy Charter School and have been at their new campus on Tyng Rd ever since.
“As we developed a high school program, I think we’ve tried to use the charter like a compass to how we should grow,” stated Orpen. When discussing IACS’s school charter, Orpen declared that he thought the school has stayed true to their charter over the last 20 years. “There’s a lot of things in there [the charter] that still resonate well with what we’re [the school] trying to do,” Orpen continues. Orpen spoke of how many of the events and functions that are done by the school reflect the school’s charter such as ILP goals/meetings, Presentations of Learning (POL), and Juries.
These events and functions are not specifically written in the charter, but they require the use of the ideas/goals in the charter. “The charter is really designed to be a framework to articulate a vision of what the school should be about. As opposed to an operating manual for an advance in activities,” said Orpen.
The charter is what our school was built upon, but the school is continuing to build up and improve. At first the school was only a middle school, so the charter was written accordingly. As IACS evolved into including a high school, the school had to improve upon the charter. “I think the charter, early on, it was idealistic in the approach to integrating all the different subject areas into one project. Which this was initially the way we were set up. Students didn’t have the skills classes in the middle school originally that we have now,” stated LaRoche, when talking about the charter. She too believed that the charter of the school is continuing to be improved as the school continues to grow.
Ever since the school opened in 1996 until now, community has always been an important aspect to the school. Community is one of the main differences that separates IACS from other public high schools. IACS has a small community compared to most high schools, giving students a chance to know more people in the community, including teachers.
Regarding the teachers at IACS, LaRoche said, “The commitment among the teachers to take the time to really get to know students, in this smaller community [IACS], which allows teachers to do that. I think our advisory model that we’ve adopted here at the middle school, which the high school had before us, has also given staff the opportunity to know students at a deeper level than they have in the past.” In the high school, many advisors take time during advisory or classes to check in with their advisees/students, which allows the teachers to help students in and out of school, relieving stress and being a support.
Imagine the student body population at IACS compared to other schools. At Lowell High School (LHS) there is a total of 3,149 students, at Greater Lowell Technical High School (GLTHS) has 2,116 students, and IACS has 388 students in the high school. IACS has a smaller and tighter community than most high schools.
“We have certainly grown in terms of student and staff,” said Orpen. Four years ago in 2011, there was 35 people in IACS’s graduating class. At the end of the last school year, there was a graduating class of 94 students. The graduating class at IACS increased over 62% over the last four years.
Not only had the student body grown over the last 20 years, but the staff growth as well. “When I first started teaching, it was only grades 5 through 8. My second year teaching, in the fall of 2001, and there was only 20-something people [staff members],”said Orpen.
Some of the staff members that were a part of the 2001 school staff and continue to still be at IACS now are; Orpen, LaRoche, Middle School Art Teacher, Jennifer Shaby, director of facility and maintenance, Robert Feeney, and Director of Health and Wellness, Gayle Pimm.
Another big change to IACS has been technology. “The amount of technology and the use of the technology in the school and the curriculum has been tremendous.” informed LaRoche.
La Roche continues on to say that as technology advances in general in the real world, so is the school. IACS is using the advances in technology as a way to improve learning in classes. Some example that she brought up were Edmodo and Google Classroom.
IACS has definitely grown and expanded over the last 20 years, and right now the school is at a good size. Orpen says, “It’s certainly harder to grow in size and stay consistent and united around the mission. As the boat gets bigger it becomes a little bit harder to steer.”
As the school continues to grow, both Orpen and LaRoche, want to make sure the charter remains consistent every school year. “Both the school and those organizations [outside organizations that the school can interact with] can have a community that works together to help the students strengthen real world connection that is part of the charter.”
Future of IACS
“What I hope we always do is make decisions that really indicate the students’ best interest. I don’t think what school are always asked to do are about the students’ best interest, I think it’s sometimes about adults, what adults think is the best interest. So what I hope is that we can always have a community where we’re always thinking about what are students’ want,” said Orpen.
As the school progresses, Orpen continues to say that he hopes that students will continue to enjoy school in the future. He also wants IACS to still be a place where students can explore and learn things that are interesting to them. That the school will not be a place where students just have to do something that they do not care about doing. Orpen explains that he does not want the school to be a place where, “students are in a rat race, all chasing after a piece of cheese that an adult has put out.
LaRoche adds on about the future of IACS, explaining that she hopes IACS will reach outside of their school community more with communities outside IACS. “Applications in the real world can be strengthened by stronger bonds with community organizations and the school itself,” LaRoche concludes.