NEW BEDFORD — When Alma del Mar Charter School opened its doors in 2011, it had only 120 students in grades K-2. Families placed their faith in a new school that based its academics on learning approaches different from other New Bedford schools.
Fast forward seven years, and Alma del Mar has a student enrollment of 415. The school has grown by one grade each year and boasts that its students — referred to as “scholars” by the faculty and administration — advance nearly a grade and a half each year in reading and writing, officials said.
On Friday, 37 scholars — 100 percent of the eighth-grade class — graduated and said goodbye to Alma del Mar as they move on to high school. More than half of these graduates started as second-graders and have been with the school since it opened.
“The school has taught me to be a better leader and be open-minded to make the world a better place. A lot of stuff I learned in classes I know will help me in the future. When I’m writing, there are skills I used in my writing that I know I’ll use in the future,” said Marcus Britton, one of the graduates and original students, who will attend Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Alma del Mar’s curricular approach employs an expeditionary learning model. Much of a scholar’s academics are based around investigating local and global issues as they’re learning and applying the fundamentals of science, social studies, and other class subjects.
“We provide scholars with a very rigorous academic experience, meaning that on the curriculum side they’re asked to tackle complex and real world issues and apply learning,” said Will Gardner, the school’s founder and executive director.
“One of the things in the Alma mission is to always be a service-minded leader. Always help people and look out for others,” said Jae-lyn Rodriguez, another one of the original students, who will attend Tabor Academy.
An example Jae-lyn gave of one of her “expeditions” was studying how different environmental factors affect plant growth over a semester.
For Marcus, an expedition focused on global food and water scarcity by studying different processes for producing, distributing and preserving food. This included a trip to Sid Wainer and Son in New Bedford, where he got a first-hand look at these processes.
Last year, Jae-lyn ran a social media/anti-bullying campaign at school. “It’s easy to get trapped in social media, and we wanted to teach safety and educate them on different situations.”
Marcus, who loves to write, wrote and recited a poem to the school population at a memorial for the victims of the Parkland School shooting. “I have a younger sister that will be coming to this school, so it frustrated me. I decided I wanted to educate, but in a way that sticks. So I wrote a poem.”
“We’re really proud of all our graduates, but this was our first class. The parents entered a lottery to be here when we didn’t yet have a building; we were just a vision for a new kind of school. We’ll always be grateful for that first group of families that took a chance on us, that supported this place and made it what it is,” said Gardner.
For the “scholars,” this is an exciting and sad occasion. No one wants to say goodbye, and there is some apprehension that comes with change. Marcus explains, “It’s going to be a little difficult to get used to. I’ve grown close with all the teachers here, so it’s hard to break away from that.”
Both Marcus and Jae-lyn said Alma del Mar has helped them a great deal with preparing academically and emotionally for high school and starting a new chapter of their lives.
“I’m excited for the new journey, but also nervous and sad because I’ve been here for so long. It’s not just friends; it’s like family,” Jae-lyn said.