STATE COLLEGE Gabe Hernández walked into David Rockower’s third period English class and paused just inside the entrance as other students surrounded the teacher to find out where to go for their next class.
Hernández, in seventh grade, pulled his slightly crinkled schedule out of his new notebook, scanned it intently and waited for the crowd to thin out before he showed it to Rockower.
“Is this my class?” Hernández said to Rockower, who nodded.
Hernández did a double fist pump as he smiled and picked out a nearby seat.
It was a common scene Tuesday at the Delta Program middle school in the Fairmount Building, as students learned where their classes were on the first day of school for the State College Area School District. It was also Delta’s first day ever operating its middle school level, though a few select seventh and eighth-graders have been enrolled with high school students before.
Phillipsburg-Osceola Area School District had their first day of school Monday. Bald Eagle, Penns Valley and Bellefonte area school districts will begin classes Sept. 2.
Delta Director Jon Downs said the alternative program for State College middle school students — the complement to the established secondary school — operates on a democratic model where students and their parents have as much of a voice in the curriculum and new hires as teachers and administrators.
“It gives students a greater choice of what they take and study,” Downs said. “They approve their schedule, suggest courses and help hire teachers. That’s a lot of involvement. Our goal is to empower students to make some decisions and to be responsible for their decisions.”
One reason for the expansion was the district wanted to retain students in light of an increased interest in charter schools among families. Downs said 80 students are enrolled in the Delta middle school, the cap set for its inaugural year, and that 20 more are on a waiting list.
“I wanted to come here because it’s not a normal public school,” Hernández, in seventh grade, said. “I wanted to have choices in what classes I got and what we did in class.”
Orientation events convinced some parents to let their children enroll in the Delta Program.
“The people we talked to, like when we talked to Jon Downs, when we went to orientation, were very engaging,” said Will Hancock, who has two children enrolled in the Delta Program. “When we went we fell in love with the place.”
Students new to the Delta Program said they enjoyed their first day in a non-traditional school, where the teachers asked to be called by their first names and asked the students what they wanted to learn.
“In the schedule, there’s a lot more choices you can make, and I like the freedom to take things you want to take,” eighth-grader Gabe Edgar said.
Math teacher Matt Seelend said students would also have additional responsibilities. He tested Edgar on who would be tasked with finding out what they missed in class if they were absent the day before.
Edgar pointed to himself, to which Seelend said “yes.”
In addition to what teachers regularly cover, they also have one project class, which incorporates one of their passions into teaching. Paul McCormick, who teaches a guitar class when he’s not covering history, asked students what they wanted to learn about guitars. Answers varied from learning chords to memorizing songs to play, and from chord fluency to sight reading.
“That’s really what I was hoping for, for it to be an introductory course with some different levels of skill,” McCormick said to the class. “That’s what I wanted to hear, because you’ll be learning from each other, too, not just me, and success will mean different things to different people.”
Seventh-grader Parker Kingshipp, who enrolled in McCormick’s guitar playing class, said the added responsibility of teaching classmates is a sign of respect.
“I’m just amazed at how respectful the teachers are of you,” Kingshipp said. “It’s a lot more relaxed than regular school where you’re molded to the curriculum. Here they mold the curriculum to you.”
Parents and students also serve on 10-person committees to hire teachers. Three teachers, three parents, three students and Downs form each hiring committee and must come to a unanimous decision to make a hire.
Karla Caldwell, a mother of four in the Delta Program, served on a hiring committee, and said she enrolled her children in the program because they liked its small school model. Kileigh Kane, in eighth grade, said she served on the committee that decided to hire Ann Colligan, Delta’s middle school math teacher.
“It was really tough, and she seemed like the best choice,” Kane said.
On their first day, Delta middle school students had a condensed class schedule to get accustomed to teachers and to create time in the afternoon to do team building activities — which included a relay race and a rock, papers, scissors tournament — and to have an ice cream social.
As students completed their relay race, Jon Downs said Delta middle school’s first day went as he imagined.
“It was a little like organized chaos, and I think it was a really nice first day and a nice start for our students and teachers,” Downs said.
“I’ve seen some kids pairing up already, making new friends. That’s a real positive. Even right now, you can see them cheering for each other. It’s a good sign for them and our program.”