Milestone Democratic School students build a basketball hoop as part of a school project.

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A Madison charter school that opened in the middle of the pandemic is preparing for a more normal return as the 2021-22 school year approaches.

Milestone Democratic School, an independent charter school available for students in grades 7-12, is holding an open house Saturday, July 31, to show off its building and share information on its structure.

Milestone is built around a “Possibilities Statement” that summarizes its goals: “Milestone Democratic School can be a place where learning is engaging, where everyone has a voice and all voices are heard, and where the most important step is the next one.”

Every decision about the school is determined by its students and families, who are able to bring proposals to regular community engagement meetings. That includes developing classes and, last year, determining if the school should return to in-person instruction.

Milestone adviser Art Richardson said they only returned for small groups in-person, but this fall they expect to be back on a much more normal schedule when they begin the year Aug. 17.

“Our students created our calendar for the school year, and they also decided our daily start time,” Richardson said. “That gave us a good idea of things that we needed to be working on during the summer.”

Richardson said they’re hoping to enroll another 66 students over last year this summer, and earlier this month they were over halfway there. Additionally, 95% of the students who attended last year and were not graduating will return, he said.

“That gives us a lot of satisfaction,” Richardson said. “Choosing a new school, a different school during the pandemic, I'm sure that was a challenge for students, not knowing what to expect.”

The school had begun recruiting shortly before everything shut down in March 2020. The recruiting, and the school's entire model, shifted online quickly.

“The main way you could sum up the first year was really just building infrastructure, infrastructure being brand new, just like starting fresh,” Richardson said. “Even though we started in the pandemic, we built a lot of good relationships and a lot of good things happened.

“But simultaneously, our students and our families, just like everyone else, were dealing with all the uncertainty that was happening during that time.”

Rising ninth-grader Genevieve Nadolski enjoyed her first year at Milestone despite the challenges.

“I wanted a new opportunity to offer things that I'm interested in,” the former Sherman Middle School student said. “And then I went to school and then I tried it out and I started liking it and then I decided to go there forever until I graduate high school.”

It was a special experience to be part of the first group attending the school, she said.

“To be the first students there to help grow the school, to have what I want, it was great,” said Genevieve, whose sister will also attend Milestone in the fall.

Richardson is looking forward to a school year that he and others hope will align with their original plans, which had been in development for two years before the pandemic. The preview at the end of the school year gave him confidence in their model.

“When we started doing small groups toward the end of the school year, and then seeing all the students getting along, and being able to do hands-on things and have some reference of normality by coming back to school, I think that helps,” he said. “Seeing, ‘OK, this is a little peek at what next year will be like.'”

Saturday’s event will include free food, music and a town hall meeting with information from the school. It runs from noon to 5 p.m. at 2758 Dairy Drive. There is also a virtual informational session on Sunday, Aug. 1, from 2-3 p.m.

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