NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Stephen F. Austin State University is home to the SFA Charter School, a multifaceted institution serving both the public and university.

The charter school is located on the first floor of the Janice A. Pattillo Early Childhood Research Center. This 120,000-square-foot facility brings under one roof the nationally accredited Early Childhood Laboratory, SFA Charter School and award-winning Department of Elementary Education.

"The Pattillo Early Childhood Research Center is unique in the state of Texas. This facility supports our theory to practice belief - learning to teach effectively occurs in settings of mutual respect, best practices and critical analysis," said Dr. Judy Abbott, dean of the James I. Perkins College of Education. "Blending the work of a university with the practice of teaching early childhood and elementary children creates a rich environment for learning."

The SFA Charter School is a free public school with the flexibility to adapt to the educational needs of individual students. Lysa Hagan, SFA Charter School principal, explained the school offers parents another educational choice for their children.

"Our curriculum is based on a constructivist learning environment, and it is different from a more traditional environment you see in other schools," Hagan said. "We believe a child comes in to any learning opportunity with background knowledge, so our job is to find out what that child already knows related to the subject and then build on that in an individual way. It's a very active and hands-on learning opportunity."

It's the school's mission to create a learning environment through a constructivist approach utilizing learning centers and an inquiry-based method that supports the student's development of self-responsibility, autonomy, openness, problem solving and integrity.

"We believe learning is a social activity," Hagan said. "There is so much for the children to learn from one another, as well as from the teacher."

Including the lighting, the charter school's classrooms are different from traditional settings. Hagan explained the rooms do not use overhead lighting, but use indirect lighting and soft music to create a calm and homey atmosphere. Students also sit at tables always facing each other, so they can discuss what they are learning.

"We have really tried to set our classrooms up as a community or family," Hagan said.

The school instructs children from kindergarten through fifth grade with two classes at each grade level. Students also can participate in physical education, music and art classes. The curriculum follows the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which the Texas Education Agency mandates; however, much of the instruction is utilizing innovative research from educational professionals such as Cathy Fosnot, Lucy Calkins and Ellin Keene.

"Charter school teachers and leadership are committed to meeting state requirements while remaining committed to implementing instructional practices based on research focused on deep learning and child development," Abbott said. "Additionally, the reciprocal professional development opportunities for SFA faculty members, educator preparation candidates, and charter teachers and students contribute to the unique learning opportunities found at the SFA Charter School."

Currently, there are about 245 enrolled students. Each year, the school offers an application lottery. Pursuant to charter school law in Texas, the SFA Charter School offers an equal opportunity for any child to attend. Applicants are entered into a lottery where a third party, who is not connected to the school, selects the names. The application process for the 2016-17 school year is underway, and applications are available in the SFA Charter School Office. Applications must be returned by 5:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29.

The SFA Charter School and Early Childhood Lab also serve more than 2,000 SFA students each fall and spring semester. Students from various academic departments at SFA, including kinesiology, psychology, music education, human services and human sciences, utilize the charter school and lab for research and instruction.

SFA's Department of Elementary Education in the James I. Perkins College of Education collaborates with the charter school. In fact, Hagan said the school's classes reflect methods the SFA Department of Elementary Education is teaching its university students. SFA students enrolled in the Field Experience II course spend three hours a day, four days a week observing and working with students at the charter school. SFA students teach various lessons and work one-on-one with the children.

"We serve as an environment to support university students and serve as a laboratory setting," Hagan said. "We feel the SFA students know how they learned in school and have a traditional idea of how to teach. We bring them to the charter school, and the students see an alternative method for educating children."

Also, there are one to four student teachers assigned to the charter school each semester.

According to Hagan, the SFA Charter School has a track record of success and is a state-of-the-art facility for students and educators.

"We couldn't do what we do without the university's support," Hagan said. "We would not be the school or have the success we have without SFA."