The ABCs of charter schools
When Laura Henning looks at the stolid concrete building ringed with asphalt, she doesn’t see empty offices or a wide swath of cracked parking spots. She doesn’t hear the traffic whizzing by on Federal Way.
Instead, Henning envisions bustling classrooms and broad skylights. She hears happy children mastering mathematics through knitting, exploring science on a biodynamic farm, learning while laughing. She sees Peace Valley Charter School, opening day Sept. 4.
“We’re going to transform this entire back space, take out these two rows of parking and put in a natural playscape for children,” Henning said, gesturing toward the edge of the desolate lot. “The farm and garden will be on the far side. In about six months time, this place will be transformed into a new and exciting place for children to run and jump and play.”
Henning is the executive director and guiding spirit behind Peace Valley Charter, one of six new charter campuses set to open in Idaho this fall in a spurt of charter school creation not seen in more than a decade. Four of the new charters are in the Treasure Valley. Charters are public schools where parents can choose to send their children.
The first charter school in Idaho opened 20 years ago. Today, more than 7 percent of all students in Idaho public schools attend charters, said Michelle Clement Taylor, coordinator of school choice for the state Department of Education. That’s nearly 22,000 charter students even before the six new schools open.
Unlike private Waldorf schools, Peace Valley is tuition-free. It was sanctioned by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission. It will start by offering kindergarten through sixth grade and later add seventh and eighth grades.
Peace Valley Charter is evidence of the region’s explosive growth in more ways than one. The campus is Treasure Valley’s first public Waldorf-model school. The teaching style is a recent arrival, and so are many of the families that will make up the school’s first class.
The initial 320 seats were filled via lottery. The current waiting list is bigger than the inaugural class.
“The growth the Treasure Valley has experienced the last 10 years, especially from California, has increased the demand for this model of education,” is how Peace Valley’s charter puts it. “Many around the country have their children in Waldorf schools, and when they consider relocation to Boise, they look for a similar school.”
Yes, California. And Vermont. And Texas. And Germany. And Peru. That last one would be Henning herself, an Idaho native who spent a decade or so in Peru and founded a Waldorf school in Arequipa after giving birth to her daughters, Alia, now 7, and Anika, now 5.
The Waldorf teaching philosophy was born nearly a century ago in Germany and appeals to Henning and other parents as much for what it is not as for what it is. While the Treasure Valley’s three other new charter schools will emphasize technology, Waldorf schools prefer that their students don’t even watch television. Screens are not welcome in the classroom.
“We’re about teaching the right thing at the right time,” Henning said, “having this deep understanding of what is developmentally appropriate for a child at a given age and then looking at each child individually. Waldorf stands against the sense that education has been a factory … (and) offers an oasis away from this technology deluge.”
Albertson Foundation helps some schools
Clement Taylor started keeping an outsized map on the wall of her Department of Education office in 2012, plotting out all of the charter schools with erasable marker. Today, the Treasure Valley in particular is a welter of school names.
“You can look and see, 2012 we had 44 schools,” she said. “Then in ’13 we added three schools, ’14 we added three schools, ’15 we didn’t add any, we had two that closed. … With the new ones, it’s 58 charter schools in the state.”
Clement Taylor and Terry Ryan credit Idaho’s population boom and the changing desires of the state’s new and old residents with fueling the growth. Ryan is executive director of the Idaho Charter School Network. He also serves as CEO of Bluum, a nonprofit supported by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to promote school innovation.
“Idaho is rapidly growing,” Ryan said. “There’s demand. The state’s charter schools perform well. … I’m not sure that all six schools are what we would invest in. But it’s their right to give it a shot.”
Bluum (pronounced bloom) invests in a selective crop of charter schools, Ryan said, ones the organization picks after a rigorous application process and that it believes have a chance at success and longevity. He pegs the waiting list for charter schools statewide at 6,000 and counting.
Bluum is investing in two of the four new Treasure Valley charters: Gem Prep in Meridian and Future Public School in Garden City.
Gem Prep: Meridian
Gem Prep: Meridian is the newest in a four-school network supported with Bluum money. Its philosophy is so-called blended or personalized learning, in which students work with teachers in small groups and also online, using “programs that adapt up or down according to their ability level,” said Jason Bransford, chief executive of the Gem Innovation Schools network.
“The teacher uses data from their own personal experience with students and online programs to give them the help and support they need,” Bransford said. “We have operated one of our schools for 14 years. Our students have done some really amazing things there.”
Future Public School
Future Public was started by two new arrivals to Idaho. Amanda Cox, 33, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, taught in North Carolina, got a master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and worked for Teach for America before moving to Boise.
Brad Petersen, 29, grew up in Reno; worked for Teach for America in Texas, teaching and writing curricula; and launched a small educational technology startup before heading to Boise. Both were awarded fellowships through Bluum and the Albertson Foundation.
Their school will start slowly, just kindergarten through third grade in the first year. The building is under construction next to the Boys & Girls Club of Ada County, and the two organizations will partner with each other. Classes are scheduled to begin on Aug. 27.
Future Public is working hard to have a diverse student body, reaching beyond charter schools’ usual well-off families, offering free full-day kindergarten, transportation and a meal program to “eliminate barriers for access,” Petersen said. Technology, the co-leaders emphasize, is key.
Cox: “Our mission and vision for Future Public School is to develop engineers of the future with an emphasis on making sure our students are prepared to be competitive in our future world.”
Petersen: “When we see 60 percent to 65 percent of current jobs being affected by automation and the rise in technology, we need our students to be nimble, iterative and creative.”
Project Impact STEM Academy
The fourth new Treasure Valley charter is Project Impact STEM Academy in Kuna. Board chairman Teresa Fleming said STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is both culture and curriculum.
“Our curriculum will be integrated through the different subjects,” Fleming said. “If you were giving a lesson that combines science and music, you could teach about sound waves. … It allows them to dig in deeper, pull in the science, technology, engineering and math fields as well as the arts.”
Teaching ‘more than the head’
And then there’s screen-averse Peace Valley.
Children at Peace Valley Charter will learn to knit, but first they will carve their own knitting needles. They will draw with beeswax crayons and paint with natural dye water colors, both imported from Germany. They will work on the school’s farm using biodynamic methods that eschew chemicals and rely on animal manure, compost “enlivened” with herbs, and a detailed planting calendar based on the movements of the earth, sun, moon, stars and planets.
The idea, Henning said, is to “connect to the natural world and use natural materials that come from that world. You can’t create this idea of a holistic environment and connection to the world and then give somebody a synthetic crayon. It’s just not consistent.”
Merrilee and Eric McDonald left Sacramento nearly three years ago in search of a more affordable place to raise their then-four children. They wanted more bedrooms, some acreage, their own open space, attributes that are increasingly unaffordable in the aptly named Golden State.
They chose Boise in part, Merrilee said, because they knew a Waldorf school was in the works.
Today, they serve on Peace Valley’s boards and look forward to the day their children can attend a school that, Merrilee said, “teaches more than the head. It gets the emotions involved. It gets the heart involved and the hands.”
Merrilee and Eric are seated in a cozy alcove of the Library! At Bown Crossing. Merrilee breast-feeds Oliver, who just hit the 4-month mark. Felicity, 10, Andrew, 8, Joshua, 5 and Benjamin, 3, are playing and reading quietly in the stacks.
Merrilee attended a private Waldorf school as a child but had to leave because her parents could no longer pay the tuition. Felicity went to a Waldorf charter in Sacramento, California, before the family moved east.
“There are a lot of people who are moving into the Treasure Valley from different parts of the country, a lot from California, and they’re bringing the Waldorf curriculum with them,” Eric said, as Oliver chortled nearby. The older McDonalds like the fact, he said, “that it is grounded, that it is homeopathic, that it is age-appropriate for children.”
Felicity’s a fan because Waldorf “allows us to learn while exercising our body as well as our brain.”
And Andrew, who has been home-schooled his entire educational career? “I’m going to be 8 on Feb. 17, and I’m looking forward to being able to actually go since I’ve never actually went.”
To school, that is. And just what does he think school will be like? He flaps his book and laughs. “Just sitting in a big room.”
Come Sept. 4, he may well change his mind.
The Valley’s new charter schools
Future Public School
“Developing Engineers of the Future”
East 43rd Street off North Adams Street, Garden City
Gem Prep: Meridian
“Personalized Learning For Your Child”
Peace Valley Charter School
“Arts and Nature Based Education”
Project Impact STEM Academy
“Mastery/Competency Based Education”
Seeking campus site
Grades K-7 and 9