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Star pupil: W.Va. Academy gets a visit from the Yass Prize, which awarded it $500K in December

It’s Friday morning at the West Virginia Academy in Morgantown, and a third-grader is plinking out Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor (that’s “Für Elise” for you civilians) while seated at a keyboard in the Music Room.

Down the hall in the Science Room, with a DIY rendering of the DNA double helix camped out on the corner of a lab table, a group of eighth-graders are making a joyful, intellectual noise over an experiment on gravity and mass – using coiled springs and the common rocks you might find in your back yard to illustrate their findings.

Scores of other students are absent altogether from the building on Chestnut Ridge Road that comprises the Mountain State’s first brick-and-mortar charter school.

That’s because they’re on an outing to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, tied in to what they’re learning in Morgantown.  

Fridays are reserved for field trips and other forms of experiential pursuits.

Another group of people were in the building, though, with a half-a-million reasons why they  say the inaugural charter is working, as it’s about to mark its fourth year in the University City.

In December, the academy received a $500,000 award for its academic innovations from The Yass Prize, an advocacy group founded by Janine Yass and her husband Jeff in 2021, as the nation’s mainstream schools were still mired in the pandemic.

Thirty-three schools across the country were nominated for the prize, known as “The Pulitzer Prize” of education.

The West Virginia Academy made the final 10 for the big prize of $1 million, which went to a charter in Montgomery, Ala.

Janine Yass, in town to tour the school, said she appreciated the impacts the academy is already making.

In West Virginia, where charters are making their first forays, school choice doesn’t have to be an “either-or” homework assignment, she said.

“This shows the demand for more options for kids to get out of schools that aren’t working for them,” Yass said.

“It also shows that states are becoming more open to letting parents and students have that choice.”

The West Virginia Academy took its effort to found the school all the way to the state Supreme Court in its successful argument to open its doors.

James Paul, the executive director of West Virginia’s newly formed Professional Charter School Board, was part of the entourage touring the academy on Friday.

He echoed Yass in his philosophy of charters and choice in the Mountain State.

“Choice,” is the operative word, he said.

Whether the learning takes place in a public school, a charter school or a kitchen table, in a homeschool environment.

“The goal is to provide parents with as many options as possible,” he said, “so that every family can find a school that will meet the unique needs of their child.”