Explorations Charter School in Winsted is one of eight public charter schools celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Explorations serves just under 100 students in grades 9 through 12 that hail from 19 towns across the state.
This school is special. You can feel the sense of community as you walk through the halls, and see small groups of students working with teachers who are giving them close, individualized attention.
Principal and Executive Director Jill Johnson said Explorations has helped students who may have otherwise fallen through the cracks.
“I think the biggest impact I’ve seen has been when I bump into former students and their families, having them say that they wouldn’t have graduated from high school without Explorations. It’s very powerful for me,” Johnson said.
“We had a student a few years back who struggled at her previous school, so she came to us. And she excelled once she got here,” Johnson explains. “She recently graduated from Central Connecticut University with a degree in molecular biology and is going to medical school! Her parents told me that if not for Explorations, she would have never graduated high school.”
Stories like these abound, and as Johnson points out, they’re the result of all of the things that make this school so special.
A student warms up after the Polar Plunge fundraiser, where Explorations helped raise $2,000 for the CT Special Olympics
Explorations focuses on individualized education, a well-rounded college preparatory curriculum, and experiential learning. This combination provides students with the skills to succeed through hands-on experience while promoting social-emotional growth and self-esteem.
Explorations was designed for students who didn’t feel engaged in traditional school environments, but hold tremendous untapped potential. Their unique model has been highly successful for students that struggle with intellectual and learning disabilities. While Explorations did not specifically seek out to serve this group of students, they’ve found tremendous success in meeting the unique needs of this student population. According to Johnson, just over 40 percent of Explorations’ current student body identifies as special needs. That’s nearly triple the state and federal average of 14 and 13 percent respectively. The success of Explorations and its students proves that with the right mix of love and support, all students are capable of becoming the best version of themselves.
In addition to the vital work Explorations does in the classroom, the school is heavily involved in advocacy work on behalf of all charter schools. In recent months, parent advocates from the school have written articles in their local newspapers about how Explorations helped their family. Other advocates have testified at the State Capitol in Hartford for funding equity.
Explorations parent Caren Smith testifies before the Black and Latino Caucus at the State Capitol in Hartford
Explorations, like all state charter schools in Connecticut, receives $11,000 per student each year, which is on average $4,000 less than their district counterparts. For a school that does such amazing work for a unique population, equal funding would mean expanding the services Explorations provides to better serve their students.
“It’s imperative for students to have choices in where they go to school,” Johnson says. “Traditional public schools are wonderful options, but they’re not the right fit for every student.”
A student helps tend to the animals at Camp Jewell in Colebrook as part of Explorations' Adventure Ed program
In northwestern Connecticut where Explorations is located, very few educational options exist beyond traditional district schools and a local vocational school. Explorations stands out because it offers another choice for families in the area, making it more likely for students to find the school that best suits their individual needs.
The small class sizes are a big factor too. The average student to teacher ratio at Explorations is 12:1. Instead of study halls, students have resource periods where they meet with staff to work through homework they may be struggling with as well as set academic goals.
Students at Explorations are finding success not only because of the unique program offerings, but also because of the close-knit and caring environment the school provides. Teachers and staff at Explorations pride themselves on the relationships they develop with students, and will regularly go above and beyond to support their individual needs both inside and outside of the classroom.
CT State Rep. Jay Case, CT State Rep. Michelle Cook and First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. join Jill Johnson, staff, students and families at NECSN's legislative breakfast at Explorations Charter School
This level of support was highlighted in a story Johnson shared with us regarding a former student and young mom who graduated from the school in 2016. Johnson says that the young woman excelled academically during her senior year, all while preparing to welcome her new baby. According to a report by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in three young women who become teen mothers don't go on to earn either a high school diploma or a GED. But Explorations refused to let this young woman become a statistic. After delivering her baby and taking some time off from school, teachers stepped in to tutor the new mom at her home. Thanks to this extra support, the young woman continued to excel at school and went on to receive a full presidential scholarship to the University of Connecticut.
But the support didn't stop there. Johnson says the young woman lived in Torrington and planned to attend the UCONN Torrington campus, but unfortunately that campus closed. Her only option would have been to attend the Waterbury campus nearly 20 miles away, but she did not know how to drive. So once again, Explorations teachers and staff stepped in. They worked together to teach her how to drive, thus making it possible for her to commute between Torrington and Waterbury for school.
Art students at Explorations revamp old file cabinets with hand-painted murals
For Johnson, providing this level of support isn't unique -- it simply comes with the territory of being part of the Explorations family. “The staff here has a lot of passion for their work and coming in for just a paycheck doesn’t fly here, she says. "Our staff rises to the occasion and builds relationships with students. Our staff goes hiking with students, kayaking, and a million other activities regularly. That forges a bond [with them] and you care about them on a personal level.”
We at NECSN are proud of everything this school has achieved over the past 20 years, and we look forward to their continued success for years to come!