When the school bell rang Thursday morning at Seacoast Collegiate High School, it wasn't just the first day of school. It was a day of firsts.
The school, which is an extension of the Seaside Neighborhood Charter School, is brand new to Walton County, but its practices already have a well-received reputation in the community.
"Our model is based on the model at Seaside," said Principal Jonathan D'Avignon, who came to Seacoast as a former Seaside teacher. "It's the same charter, same school, just a different name."
Seacoast Collegiate High School is also closely related to the Northwest Florida State College's Collegiate High School program. In fact, the school shares building space with the NWFSC South Walton Campus.
"They've been extremely helpful," D'Avignon said.
At Seacoast, entering ninth and tenth graders will have the opportunity to graduate high school along with a two year degree, not to mention certifications in both Microsoft and Adobe programs. The charter school was the only one in the state of Florida to receive a $30,000 grant to provide every student with the tools to become Microsoft Office certified.
"At the end of the year they can take the Microsoft industry test," D'Avignon said. "They're going to need to know how to use Excel and PowerPoint. What we're trying to do is develop talent for any situation."
Much of the curriculum is student-driven. On the first day of school, students filled out multiple intelligence tests, letting the faculty assess how the students learn and how to conduct future coursework.
Students will also get a taste of self-reliance with a distance learning research class, where all of the assignments and tests will be done online, while instructors will be available for back-up help. The purpose of the course is to engage students in research and critical thinking.
"We're trying to get students to be thinking about thinking," D'Avignon said.
The first day of school was also dedicated to designing the school's logo, mascot and three Latin phrases associate with the school. Months before the bell even rang, students were tasked with naming the school. They chose Seacoast, combing Seaside and the Emerald Coast.
"Rarely in your life do you get to do something first, something that is big," D'Avignon said. "It's all in part of creating ownership. We're creating an atmosphere where kids have a choice."
"They're investing in this school; they're involved in building this," said science teacher Marilyn Misulia.
Julie Martin, the art and Adobe program instructor, has two children attending Seacoast, a ninth and tenth grader. She currently works at teaches at both Seacoast and Seaside.
"I've seen the Seaside model from every angle — as a parent, volunteer and teacher," she said. "It's an incredible opportunity and a successful model."
Classes are rigorous, but the students have a few advantages that others don't, like small class sizes and a faculty who back them 100 percent.
"We have high expectations, but a very reliable support system." D'Avignon said. "My objective is not to get them to college, but to get them to graduate college."
Right now, the student body is a whopping 82 ninth and tenth graders. As the school grows to include all four years, D'Avignon said he sees the the school maxing out at about 160. There is already a waiting list to attend Seacoast, where students chosen are based on a lottery system, much like NWFSC High School.
Teaching with passion
Seacoast instructors have high level degrees specializing in the areas they teach. Finding teachers who are passionate about their subjects is an important facet to the faculty, D'Avignon said.
"With students, like life, legitimacy is a big deal," he said.
Teachers are just as excited about the new school as the students and the curriculum model of Seacoast.
"We'll be working with students who really want to be involved," said social studies instructor Peggy Rambosk.
English teacher Tara Dickerson comes to Seacoast after teaching at the collegiate school at NWFSC.
"I was excited to be a part of building a collegiate school," Dickerson said.
Seaside's reputation as a well-performing charter school was another draw for the instructors.
"I worked the last two summers on 30A and just by knowing some of the families and the caliber of students at the school, it seems very prestigious," said math instructor Katrina McAlpin. "I knew I wanted to be there."
While students will have the opportunity to attend clubs, sports and activities at South Walton High School, the instructors are open to creating a kind of school that the students want to attend.
As some schools are sweating the transition to the Common Core curriculum or FCAT changes, at Seacoast, the focus is well beyond state standards.
"Common core is a very basic standard," Dickerson said. "If we have advanced expectations, we'll be automatically covering Common Core. We won't be teaching FCAT everyday."
'A powerful mechanism'
When it comes to the incoming students at Seacoast, D'Avignon is confident about the Seacoast Collegiate High School model.
"I used to teach at Seaside," he said. "The system not only works, but it's a powerful mechanism. That's why it's one of the top 10 middle schools in Florida."
Collegiate high school may not be the perfect fit for every student, which is OK, the principal said. He points toward South Walton High School, where he served as assistant principal last year.
"There's an excellent high school right down the road."