Charter School Graduates Five Students

By MANDY LOCKE

The five sit around the schoolyard picnic table as naturally as a family at the dinner table. Such an easy rhythm pulses through their exchanges that the new addition to their group thinks this handful of Island teenagers is, in fact, family.

And that, they agree, is exactly the point. It's all part of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School experiment.

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"I can't really say it's a school. It's been a great family," says Kristian Seney as he pulls apart a muffin from Biga Bakery, the unofficial lunchroom of charter school students.

These five teenagers - two young women and three young men - will leave their charter school home this Saturday - more than doubling the alumni population of the seven-year-old school.

It's Tuesday morning - just four days before they graduate from their role as the oldest and wisest kids on "Main street," the official name for the post and beam school's central hallway. When these seniors - known as "ultimates" within the charter school community - are asked if they're ready to move on, they sigh in unison.

"It's a mixture of emotions. It's kind of sad because I've been here so long," says Abraham Stimson.

But in the final days before these charter school students stand before the 160 other students to receive their accolades and best wishes, their thoughts meander through the experiences that made their time at this funky West Tisbury campus the perfect high school education.

"It gives you a chance to see what's out there," says Kerry Sertl, referring to the mentor program in which each high schooler must participate.

"I got a little peek at what it's like to teach," says Abraham, noting how the new addition of a darkroom in the middle school wing allows him to teach basic photography to the younger students.

"The whole point is to learn over time," says Freya Grunden, explaining that the absence of high-stress testing and a high volume of project-based work forced her to truly comprehend her subjects.

"I did a concert right over there," says Xavier Powers, referring to a portfolio project he completed with his longtime mentor Maynard Silva perched on another schoolyard picnic table. "I do better playing for big crowds."

"It's not like you're sitting inside all day with fluorescent lights and no windows. If you need a break, you can go outside for five or 10 minutes," Kristian explains.

Their discussions are a sort of dance - each anticipating the other's moves so as not to step on a speaker's toes. They anticipate Kerry adding another thought two beats after her sentence ends. They know Xavier will meander for a moment before hitting an insightful point. Abe's the most likely to disagree - gently steering his classmate to consider a new opinion. Kristian's a soundbite machine - succinct and articulate. Freya gives it raw - unedited and on-point.

Each is unapologetically different - square pegs for the world's round holes. But in the charter school, they indisputably belong.

"I love the smaller groups. It's easier to teach five kids than 50," Kerry says. "And there are no cliques."

"It's a judgment-free community," Kristian offers.

"It's hard to hate someone you see every day," Kerry concludes.

At least three of the five question how they would have survived at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. A few detail personal limitations, from crowd anxiety to difficulty with writing, that would have been major stumbling blocks at the regional high school. But in the charter school, teachers work closely with students, adjusting the project work to help them sharpen strengths and bolster weaknesses.

But this isn't the kind of school through which students can coast - an erroneous perception they say that their peers can't seem to overcome.

"People don't understand the school. They think we slack off. They don't know that I come in late at night, cramming to get an assignment done," Kerry says.

"When it first started, I think they all thought we raised goats and wore Birkenstocks," Freya adds.

The entire school community will celebrate the graduates' achievement Saturday - each class offering a symbolic gift to the graduating class. And the graduates, in turn, will offer the school a gift - the details of which they've managed to keep a secret for several weeks.

As a group, this batch of graduates is "quiet and humble," charter school director Bob Moore says Tuesday afternoon, ticking through tales about each of his seniors.

"They've been important to the life of this school," says Mr. Moore.

Despite how well they function as a group, the graduates say their distinct personalities make it hard for them to describe a group identity. But their identities as individuals couldn't be more clear.

Freya's the theatrical artist among them - wearing the statement with strands of hair falling over her eyes, safety pins dangling from gold hoop earrings and a new tattoo on her left shoulder. Xavier exudes coolness - wavy hair protruding beneath his Blues Brothers brown felt hat. He speaks through music - a conversation he's been carrying on with his mentor Mr. Silva at Island performances for several years.

Kristian, the only one giving in to the charter school's crunchy reputation by donning Birkenstocks and a blindingly bright Hawaiian shirt, is known for his technological talent and dramatic flair. Kerry, who along with Xavier is a founding member of the Charter School, seems to be the group's mother hen - encouraging her classmates to mention their own accolades and experiences. Talking to Abraham, the group's unofficial ambassador, is like opening a present, with unexpected gifts just inside the wrapper.

And their post-charter school paths couldn't be more different.

Freya is headed to Dean College in Franklin, where she will begin preparing for a career as a stage manager.

Abraham is going to do some traveling in Ireland to study film before returning to school to become a teacher.

Xavier is headed to Vermont to travel the music and theatre circuit.

Kristian plans to do some traveling as well, starting with Massachusetts. After a year, he's sure he'll head to college.

Kerry, a fan of law, crime and the entanglement of the two, is starting at Cape Cod Community College this fall, where she hopes to pursue a career in forensic science.

Despite their divergent roadmaps for the coming year, these graduates are convinced they'll remain a close part of the charter school family.

After all, says Kristian, "The school grew up as we did."