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Charter school gets new teachers, needs more kids

Posted: August 7, 2014 - 12:12am
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A classroom, as seen on Tuesday, at Juneau Community Charter School.  Summer Dorr
Summer Dorr
A classroom, as seen on Tuesday, at Juneau Community Charter School.

Mike Bucy is glad Juneau families have a choice. A band teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle school, his wife is homeschooling one of their children while the other is enrolled at the Juneau Community Charter School. With the charter school’s staff infused with new, enthusiastic teachers and a new leader, there’s no better time for families to get involved, he said.

The charter school — a little-known school with a small student body on Fourth Street — is directed and run by a group of parents, called the Academic Policy Committee, instead of a principal. Parents of the school’s approximately 100 students serve lunch, lead study groups, clean up the school and oversee field trips. They do everything but teach class, Bucy said.

While it’s an unusual setup that has caused some frustration along the way (including what APC President Ryan Stanley called “kind of a rocky year” in 2013) being led by a group of involved parents and teachers means everyone is invested in the children’s education, said Bucy, who just finished a two-year stint on the committee.

“What a principal would be taking care of, that’s what the APC takes care of,” he said. “The fact that all these parents are regularly invested, it imprints on the kid that (education) is something valuable. Everybody is supposed to have a job.”

Parent-run committees also hire new teachers and administrators, but all hires must be approved by the Juneau School District. Because the school is chartered, it doesn’t have to adhere to all district mandates. Stanley, the father of a charter school third-grader, said it’s important that Juneau families be allowed to choose where they send their children for school, and he realizes that a “mainstream” school might not be a fit for everyone.

“Good education, in my opinion, isn’t just: ‘Here are the answers, remember them, and put them down when asked,’” he said. “The students are the ones that should be doing the discovering.”

Although charter school students are tested to the same state standards as other JSD students, the school is not beholden to the district’s curriculums, longtime charter school teacher Sheila Keller said.

“I’m not a standards-based educator, I’m a kid-based educator,” she said. “You can do what the kids lead you to do — I love it.”

The school is also the only one in the district free to manage its own budget. This year, that budget includes a possible 50 percent increase from last year’s — if the school can get enough kids enrolled.

Although the school always has a waiting list for its kindergarten-first grade level, it has struggled to get the numbers it needs in the upper grades, Stanley said. There are supposed to be 11 students in each grade level, but the third through eighth grades need more kids for the coming school year, he said. The charter school recently aired radio advertisements to attract new families to the program.

“Our middle school is not filled,” he said. “We’ve got quite a few seats open in the middle school.”

If the school has 92 students for the 2014-15 school year — “our current low prediction,” Stanley said — the district will grant a 15 percent increase in the school’s budget, for a total of $1.3 million. If it reaches 108 students, it’ll get $200,000 more to spend on a full-time special education teacher “and a lot of other stuff,” he said

Stanley said adding kids at the higher grades is a challenge because of the school’s unique focus on constructivism — the philosophy of students shaping their own learning through experiences, rather than by memorizing the right answers. It’s a totally different world from the district’s other schools, even the Montessori school, he said.

“Over the years as kids move out and stuff, it’s harder to add people to the program in the later grades, especially at the middle school level,” he said. “They’re learning a whole new method of school and their peers in class are already used to it.”

No matter what the enrollment numbers and budget boost will be, things are only going to get better for the charter school, Bucy said. With a tough year of administrative issues and teacher turnover behind it, the school is welcoming a slew of new teachers to carry out the school’s constructivist focus. In fact, only two teachers are returning from last year, including Keller, who has taught at the school for 12 years.

The new hires include two middle school teachers, a kindergarten-first grade teacher, a music teacher, a keyboarding and art teacher and a part-time special education teacher.

Working so closely with parents while teaching children can be too much for a lot of teachers, Bucy said. It takes a particular kind of teacher to fit in at the school, which has caused the high turnover.

“(The parents are) helpful (but) it’s another management issue you have to figure out,” he said. “It’s hard on teachers. We do not want to keep eating up teachers.”

Keller said the school isn’t a fit for all teachers, even really good ones.

“There are so many pieces to it that it’s really a challenging school to work in,” she said. “The school is really best for a teacher that wants to be successful at a special school.”

In order to make the school “more supportive of teachers,” the APC created a new facilitating teacher position, Bucy said. This person, while not a principal, will “guide the implementation of the vision” by working as a go-between, connecting the school’s teachers.

The charter school’s new facilitating teacher is former Chatham School District administrator Cynthia McFeeters, who has worked in the Angoon district since 2004. She has experience working with “diverse families and experience working in a community school,” Stanley said.

McFeeters will keep all the teachers working toward the same goal, he said.

“The facilitating teacher is a peer to all of the other teachers but she doesn’t have a classroom assignment,” Stanley said. “She facilitates the program and makes sure all the trains are running on time.”

The charter school began last school year without anyone in an administrative position. Quinn Haas was hired early last October by a parent hiring committee as the school’s interim site manager. After a protective order was issued against him by an APC member, he tendered his resignation Nov. 13. The “Quinncident,” as Stanley called it, threw the school for a loop.

“(Haas) was really only in the role long enough to create a whole bunch of confusion and dischord amongst the staff,” Stanley said. Two teachers got pregnant and left, he said, but another didn’t come back, in part because of the Haas incident.

The school’s students and their parents are a different issue entirely, he said.

“As the school has grown and diversity has grown, we have fewer and fewer parents who can afford to (volunteer every day),” Stanley said. “We’ve had a steady decline over the last decade.”

The problems the school encountered last year were “kind of like a perfect storm, all kinds of factors came to a head at once,” he said. “The district was really supportive and helpful, only to the extent that they can be.”

Aug. 20 marks the start of a new school year. Keller is looking forward to working with a crop of teachers who are already invested in student-led learning, as well as the facilitating teacher.

“I’m very, very excited about the changes,” she said. “They’re all strong supporters of our constructivist approach.”

Keller, who will be teaching the second and third grades this year, is planning a town-building project for her class. She said children are “big on figuring out how we relate to each other” and the project will give everyone a role in a pretend town.

On Tuesday, Keller’s classroom was coming together — Carlos the rooster, the school’s unofficial mascot, sat crowing in his cage while other animals in Keller’s menagerie — doves and bearded dragons — looked out on the colorful stacks of books and chairs that will soon hold eager students. A banner bearing the school’s slogan, “We are pulling together,” hung above it all. She said the partnership between students, parents and teachers is “kind of like democracy at its best.” The community celebrates together when their plans work out, and “when they don’t, you learn from it.”

She sees the new school year as a fresh start.

“We had a really rough year last year so we needed a new opportunity to start over, and I think that’s what we have here,” she said.

Anyone interested in enrolling children into the Juneau Community Charter School can do so by contacting the Juneau School District at 523-1702. The deadline is Aug. 8.

Editor's note: This article has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Cynthia McFeeters' last name.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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