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First-hand experience: Maeser Academy gives students three weeks off to study their passions

MIDWAY — It's 10 a.m. on a school day, and 16-year-old Alycia Carmichael is dripping wet in a swimming suit and scuba fins, defogging a snorkeling mask.

"You know, why not learn how to dive?" she asks casually, swishing her feet through the sulfur-rich water of Midway's Homestead Crater. "It's real-world learning and way cooler than going to class."

Technically, though, Carmichael is still at school.

Every January, students at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Pleasant Grove, take a three-week break from traditional math, English and science instruction to explore a career field first hand.

Carmichael is toying with the idea of diving into underwater photography after graduation, so she, along with about a dozen of her classmates, opted to use the time to get scuba certified. Other students tried filmmaking, started businesses, took up karate, shadowed doctors, worked with college professors doing medical research and argued mock legal cases — among other things.

Students can choose from teacher-sponsored activities, such as scuba, or, like one student who travelled to Australia to study the great barrier reef, design their own internships. Everyone earns a grade and credit toward graduation.

"In high school, kids have to focus on a lot of things at the same time," said Justin Kennington, headmaster. "In high school, though, kids are also trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It's really great to be able to spend a little time just doing one thing, going in depth."

The internship program, which Maeser calls "Winterim," is possible because charter schools, though run on public money, are freed from some of the restrictions traditional district-run schools must adhere to. Most district schools, for example, are required to hold school for 990 hours over a minimum of 180 days. When the State Board of Education approved parent-formed Maeser Academy's charter, the 180 day regulation was waived.

"Because charter schools are supposed to be little education laboratories, the board is willing to make exceptions on certain rules more readily," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education. "The theory is, they get more freedom so they can experiment with alternative education methods."

To compensate for fewer days in the classroom, Maeser Academy implements a longer school day for the rest of the year.

Teachers also try to weave math, science and history into their programs so students don't fall behind on core subjects during Winterim, said Toni Fairchild, 30, the chemistry teacher at Karl Maeser who planned the scuba diving excursion.

"There's a lot to learn about diving," she said. "You've got to know the science behind compressed air. You use critical thinking skills to regulate the nitrogen levels in your blood."

Winterim is primarily funded by parents. This year, parents pitched in between $25 and $3,000 per student, depending on what their child chose to do.

Parents, though, seem enamored with Winterim — despite the extra charge.

"This program has saved my son," said Orem mother Monica English, who has a 10th grader at Karl Maeser. "When he started high school, he was really floundering. His grades were poor. He just didn't find anything that interesting."

After spending three weeks doing medical research with a professor at the University of Utah last year, however, her son Ethan "wants to take every science class he can get his hands on," she said. As a sophomore, he's already taken several college-level courses.

"It just sparked something in him," she said.

When it comes to program fees, England said, she just steers her son toward the cheaper end of the spectrum.

Ethan England has never complained.

"I love this," he said. "I mean, I'm working one on one with a researcher doing the same things graduate students do. I think that's pretty cool."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com