Arts emphasized at charter school

Teacher says Juneau education program gives more leeway to offer expansive and creative lesson plans

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008

It's Thursday morning at the Juneau Community Charter School, and the students have decisions to make: Take a banjo lesson from a substitute teacher, make a wallet out of duct tape, build props for an upcoming play, or pretty much any other activity they can think of.

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David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"I guess it's a little freer than other schools," said 10-year-old Ryan Moritz, a fifth-grader.

Rigid, traditional teaching methods are not what the charter school is about. Instead, students are given a wide berth to learn in creative ways within a semi-structured environment.

"Things are fun when they have rules, where it's organized," Moritz said. "But not too organized."

Moritz's teacher, Sheila Keller, said the charter school has given her a lot more leeway to come up with more expansive and creative lesson plans.

"The kids are inspired a lot of the time," Keller said.

Juneau's sole charter school has been around for 10 years. It has 68 students, from kindergarten to sixth grade, and four full-time staff members, who occupy a colorfully converted office building downtown.

The school has no principal. Instead, it's run by site administrator Margie Hamburger, with a lot of input and help from parents.

Though sometimes dubbed a private or exclusive school, the school is public and receives some of the lowest funding per pupil than other schools in the district.

"We have a broad range of kids from different backgrounds," Hamburger said. "You don't have to be a certain type of family to come here."

Hamburger said that the basic differences between the charter school and other elementary schools is subtle, and includes a higher level of parental involvement, an active role in the community, and a smaller school environment.

Several parents can usually be found helping in classrooms or other activities, students take regular field trips around town, and students are in mixed-aged classes, and there's a lot of interaction between all grade levels.

Hamburger said the charter school's curriculum, particularly in teaching math, stresses that students come up with strategies for solving problems themselves, rather than having teachers present strategies for them.

The intent is to develop a deeper level of understanding, Hamburger said.

The result: The charter school has consistently had some of the districts highest scores on state assessment exams, especially in math.

Hamburger said the charter school places a strong emphasis on developing a "whole child," and learning to work with others is a big part of the school. Artistic education is also a big part of the school, and all older students belong to the school's string orchestra.

Parent Annie Geselle said the emphasis on the arts was a big factor in her choosing the school for her third-grader. Geselle said she also felt that the charter school did a good job of building up the confidence of its students, making them more eager learners.

When asked, several students said they enjoyed coming to the charter school and rarely found it boring.

"I just pretty much like everything," said fourth-grader Adam Spiech.

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail

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