A generation of Salt Lake City families enjoyed the Galleria, a family fun center eight miles south of Temple Square. As other attractions grew, the 49th Street Galleria fell on hard times. After a decade as variety retail, it was abandoned until Mike Farley spotted it in 2011 and imagined the 27 acre site as an international school.
Farley, trained as a teacher at BYU, has been a public charter school developer for 20 years. He opened the Woodland School in Traverse City Michigan in 1995. We met in Chicago where he opened Phoenix Military Academy. In 2006, Farley returned to Salt Lake as the founding director for Entheos Academy, the first Expeditionary Learning school in Utah.
Next month, American International School of Utah (AISU) will complete its first year of operations as a K-12 school for more than 1000 students. On a visit last week, we spotted 10 remarkable things about AISU.
- Repurposed mall. Working with a developer and local architect, a skating rink became a high school, the bowling alley a performing arts center. Farley added as many windows as they could afford including a spectacular wall of windows in the main hall. A church shares the performing arts hall (and paid for the renovations). It’s the best example of repurposed commercial space we’ve seen.
- Instructional progression. Early grades use a Montessori approach. Intermediate grades are student-centered similar to Acton Academy. The high school has big blocks that use a mixture of learning spaces that allow for student choice and encourage ownership. Each trimester includes 1 core content block, 1 elective, 1 study block, and 1 math block – intended to allow the time needed for a more intensive focus on a deep understanding of content. Facility includes glass wall classrooms for quiet work space and big open collaborative work space. CAO Nate Justis said the system of earned autonomy was a tough adjustment for some secondary students, but students work regularly with Success Coaches (see #5) to develop the skills needed to make the student centered approach work effectively. Students take an adaptive MAP assessment three times a year.
- Competency-based. There are no zeros at AISU, just more work to be done. Principal Mark Smith said giving a student a zero on an assignment just signals its lack of importance. His philosophy is recording success not failure. He said standards-based grading and progression based on demonstrated competence took some getting used-to for students and parents.
- Performing arts. Director of Performing Arts, Ms. Erica Glenn leads vibrant performing arts offerings including choir, dance, and theater. The secondary school has three ability grouped choirs; we saw talented sixth graders singing confidently next to seniors. Senior Tanner Bennett wrote a 20 song musical.
- Success coaches. Borrowing a best practice from Expeditionary Learning, students start the day with an advisory period called Crew. Students meet with their Success Coach weekly for goal setting. Middle school Success Coach Geoffrey Dean said that students particularly benefit from an advocate at school–a caring adult who is on their side. High school Success Coaches focus on study skills, college awareness and course selection. Success Coaches send a note to parents weekly. Being a Success Coach is a dedicated role, and not an additional responsibility for content teachers. The school’s team has indicated and stresses the value in the role and its impact on students.
- Learner profile. The AISU tech team built a dashboard and learner profile on top of several other platforms and apps. It monitors student progress and communicates learner preferences. Parents have access to the dashboard and are encouraged to actively utilize the tools.
- Early college. Next week AISU will have its first student graduate with an associate’s degree–and it won’t be the last. Principal Smith plans a full assortment of AP classes as well as dual enrollment opportunities on campus and at nearby SLCC.
- Opening full. Many new schools open with one grade. It was unusual and challenging for AISU to open with more than 1,000 students K-12. Farley said they plan to admit backfill enrollment in grades 6 and 8 and expand to about 1200 student over three years. There are plans to add a second elementary school.
- International students. There are 40 tuition-paying international students. Farley hopes to have 150 in three years (or about 20% of total enrollment).
- Learning culture. For a new school, the culture seems positive and productive. Farley talks about “purpose, passion, and persistence.” The level of self direction was a challenge for some students. Our tour guide, freshman CT said, “We develop culture, one that is learning oriented.” CT is part of a new DECA club that has two finalists at the state level and two national finalists.
Learn more about another great SLC area school: