BRADENTON -- In the main room of New Path Academy, the seven students in class on a recent Friday were tracing and drawing roots and stems pulled from the garden.
Some student drawings were more sophisticated than others, reproducing the leaves and fine lines. Others were more childlike, larger and fatter drawings than their real-life counterparts. With prompting, students were able to call the "m" word they were studying: "morphology."
Ranging in ages from 9 to 19, the students in the new school which opened in the fall -- are mainly taught by Paul Stone, an engineer-turned-teacher who spent 10 years at Palmetto High School before venturing out to open his own school.
Reminiscent of the old one-room schoolhouse, New Path organizers focus on "differentiated instruction," where the teacher is able to tailor each lesson to the student's individual needs. That approach, Stone and CEO Jennifer Radebach say, is why the fledging school will succeed, and will attract students who aren't successful in the public school setting.
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When the school opened in the fall, Stone was working with four students. He's up to 12 now. By Jan. 1, 2017, he wants to have 60. And he thinks that a reasonable goal, especially with how he views the current state of public education. What New Path is doing isn't revolutionary.
"What we're doing is not radical," he said. "What's radical is the testing in public schools."
The path to New Path
Stone started his career as an engineering manager, working at Bausch & Lomb until the plant closed. He tran
sitioned to working as a math teacher at Palmetto High, a big pay cut for Stone. He began tutoring outside school to help make ends meet. He began in the math and sciences, but then spread to other subjects. As a teacher, Stone says, he struggled to balance teaching his students and preparing them for state-mandated tests. In May 2013, he came to a breaking point.
"There's no time in public schools anymore," he said
He left the school district with the hopes of starting his own school and moved through a few locations in the area, working in afterschool programs, before joining Radebach.
Radebach, a former special education teacher with the Manatee County School District, branched out and started her own K-5 school in 2000, called the Radebach School. She used the same differentiated instruction method that Stone is using now. Radebach sold the school in 2008 and was formerly the CEO and president of Southwest Children's Academy, operated in the same site.
Before Radebach's tenure at the Children's Academy of Southwest Florida, the academy in February 2014 had its license revoked for the care of children younger than age 1 after an infant died at the facility on 26th Street West.
The license was restored Aug. 1, 2014.
New Path took over the Southwest Children's Academy's four locations in September 2015, and Stone and Radebach were able to open and start operating New Path together. New Path is a state-approved "nonpublic" school, and they are working toward accreditation. They are eligible to take McKay Step Up for Student scholarships, which are aimed to help poor children and families have access to quality education. And while they do have to give a standardized test to show academic progress to the state, they had a menu of tests they're able to choose from, and don't spend nearly as much time preparing students for the tests.
In addition to the school, New Path operates a number of afterschool programs in Manatee County, and is in the process of getting approval from the county commission to operate in the Rubonia Community Center.
"Our goal is to offer the best educational program to everyone," Radebach said.
In the classroom
Differentiated instruction will work for any student, Stone and Radebach say. It's especially helpful to students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting. Most students who have come to the school so far have come through word of mouth, after dropping out of public schools, being marked as truant from public schools or having had disciplinary issues. Stone called the school a "safe place" for those types of kids.
"The point is ... it's a need," Radebach said. "These kids exist."
Down the road, Radebach and Stone hope for a symbiotic relationship with the Manatee County School District, where the district may refer students to New Path.
Only a few months in, Stone and Radebach say they're able to see the gains in student learning, and the gains in "soft skills."
"They're learning, it's beautiful," Stone said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.