A new Routt to education

Charter school opens up to children and community

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The week before Labor Day, Sandy Clark drove a group of soon-to-be North Routt Charter School students to the Clark Store. Betsy Zimmerman's school bus, taking North Routt children bound for Steamboat schools, was parked in front of the store. The charter school students ran up to the bus and gave Zimmerman, their beloved longtime bus driver, an exuberant welcome. Then they waved goodbye.

Last year, it was their parents who were always waving goodbye.

The charter school students, most of whom took that bus last year, will not be riding it anymore, at least for this year.

The long bus ride, in fact, was the initial reason a group made up mostly of North Routt women such as Clark got together a year and a half ago to try to establish a charter school in their community.

This summer the charter school signed a contract with the Steamboat Springs School District, which will be sending the school per-pupil funding amounting to about $80,000 to $90,000 throughout the year.

"We don't have to get on the bus and drive all the way to Steamboat anymore," said Skylar Hughes, an exuberant 10-year-old.

Last week was the first week of school for the charter school students, with 15 students ranging in age from 5 to 10 filing into the Moonhill Schoolhouse Tuesday morning. Clark and some of the other founders, most of whom have placed their own children in the school, walked around beaming, the unmistakable look of a dream realized painted across their faces.

Clark and other parents who volunteered themselves at the school all week, however, knew the first week at the charter school would be more than a little hectic.

"The first day of school was like the first day of school anywhere," said School Director Mary Bramer, who also helped out during the week.

"We have big dreams," she said. "But then reality sets in and you realize that you have to go step by step."

Because the Clark Schoolhouse is still under construction, the school will be based out of the Moonhill Schoolhouse, a small blue and white building about six miles south of the Clark Store, for another week or two. Both buildings have not been used as schools for more than 40 years.

When the state underwent redistricting in 1960, it consolidated tens of tiny districts into three: West Routt (RE-1), Steamboat (RE-2) and South Routt (RE-3).

The unincorporated area in North Routt became part of the RE-2 district, sending its students down to Steamboat.

North Routt rancher Jay Fetcher, who ran for the state Legislature last year, was educated in the Clark Schoolhouse until he entered eighth grade in 1960. He had two teachers between kindergarten and seventh grade and rarely went into Steamboat.

"I didn't go to town for months," Fetcher said.

He remembers a time when the schoolhouse was also a community center and parents spent a good deal of time within the walls of the school.

"The center of the community was that school," he said.

Learning camp

With the Clark Schoolhouse still under reconstruction, the students, who range from kindergartners to fifth-graders, have been enjoying what the founders of the school call "place-based education" and what the school's one full-time teacher calls "learning camp."

Cindy Gantick, the teacher, has been taking the students on field trips through North Routt and Steamboat.

The excursions have included trips to Steamboat Lake State Park, the Triple M Ranch and Pat Dempsey's Wapiti Ranch, where the students learned about horses and stewardship of land.

The philosophy of place-based education centers around getting children to engage in their own communities.

The bus ride, while making students wake up earlier and spend up to an hour each way in the winter on the bus, also took them away from the community where they live.

The North Routt school, then, is hoping to allow children to stay in and learn about their community, rather than being pulled out every day.

That was one of the big reasons 14 children from North Routt were home-schooled last year and 15 are now in the charter school.

Karen Hughes, the mother of one of the charter school students, said her son Skylar used to be home-schooled at the family's ranch.

The 14 home-schooled children in North Routt, in fact, would meet once a week at the Moonhill Schoolhouse to get together and go on excursions, Hughes said.

Hughes, listening to her son tell the class about his life, said the ability to keep her son near his home has been a dream come true.

"We live in big places, on ranches. The kids do chores and have animals," Hughes said, looking over at her son talk about his father's horse.

"These are all the things that he does. This is his life."

Skylar is equally excited about the school, where he is one of the oldest students.

He said the multiage classroom concept, where kindergartners are taught with fifth-graders, works well.

Gantick said the class has begun to gel, with the older students helping younger students.

"The kids are working together. It's not a family yet, but it's very natural for them to interact with each other and learn from each other," she said.

The curriculum for each grade, of course, is different, and students will be broken into smaller groups as they learn more grade-specific knowledge and prepare for the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests.

A community project

But while the state is interested in how charter school students are doing on the standardized exams, the school's most difficult test may come in convincing the North Routt community of its worth.

The school got some help from the federal government in its quest to get the community involved at the school.

A Twenty-First Century Grant the school received will go toward offering classes throughout the school year and in the summer for both children and adults in the community, Bramer said.

The approximately $38,000 grant will pay for a part-time administrator for the programs which could include everything from pottery classes to computer classes, and for materials Bramer said.

That grant, Bramer hopes, will help bring the community back to the school and make the school an important center once again.

She also thinks the projects the students work on throughout the year, which may include an oral history of North Routt County, can further connect the school and the community.

One grandparent of a charter school student said she can sense the anticipation about the school in the community.

"It's pretty exciting what's going on. A lot of the community is kind of holding their breath wondering if it's all going to work," said Margie Hildebrand. "Well, it is."

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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