As Meghan Sparks, 17, delved into her first math assignment of the school year Monday at Silver State Charter School, her service dog Simba napped at her feet.
In traditional high school, she said, her classmates mocked her for the yellow Lab and golden retriever mix that serves as her constant companion to help relieve her anxiety.
“I came here because bullying is big no-tolerance thing here,” she said. “I haven’t had any issues.”
Sparks was one of about 550 students enrolled in the charter junior high and high school, which resumed classes Monday.
Superintendent Steve Knight said students come to the school for an array of reasons, from failing out of traditional schools to excelling beyond the typical pace.
The model of combining online courses with classroom instruction, he said, accommodates the range of learners and gives flexibility to students who work or pursue other interests outside of school.
In its 10th year, the school is rolling out a new system of delivery this year, said Vice Principal Blaine Spires. In the past, students have assembled in “learning communities,” he said, where they did their work online but had access to teachers for help.
This year, students will spend an hour and 15 minutes each week in class in each of the core subjects.
He said the change comes as a response to the state’s rollout of the Common Core Standards last year, as well as an attempt to raise the school’s one-star rating.
It is the worst out of a possible five-star rating as part of the state’s new method of evaluating schools. It replaces the former process outlined in the No Child Left Behind system. Under legislation passed this session, charter schools with three consecutive years of one-star ratings on the Nevada school-ranking system will be forced to close.
Spires said administrators have been to multiple conferences and staff members have undergone training to improve quality and increase academic structure.
“That’s the goal, to make sure students are getting the best education they possibly can,” he said.
Knight pointed to technology upgrades throughout the school as well as a flourishing performing arts program — with students putting on a new play every month — to creating the culture they want at the school.
Because of retirements, the school has eight new teachers this year.
“Because of that, it allowed us to rebuild our structure, which I think is going to be dynamo,” he said. “It allows for more focus on the Common Core courses, which we feel will greatly improve our test scores.”
In addition to the changes being made this year, improvements were made last year when the school moved to its new location on Mallory Way. Those improvements were not reflected in the school’s rating, which were calculated based on scores from the 2011 school year.
Sierra Jerzykowski, 15, a sophomore from Lake Tahoe, said the school’s delivery method has worked for her.
“It’s a better education for me because I can work at my pace,” she said. “I’ve also done the whole online only stuff. That was a lot harder because I didn’t have anybody helping me, where I have all the teachers helping me here.”