Working it out

North Routt officials pleased with charter school's progress

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Teacher Don Williams sat behind a keyboard at the back of a newly remodeled classroom in the North Routt Community Charter School in Clark on Tuesday.

He was joined by a group of six students, including four girls who stood side by side behind a row of microphones. The group of students and teacher eventually broke into song, a rendition of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout."

Well, work it on out, honey.

You know you look so good.

You know you got me going now,

Just like I knew you would.

For three years, the North Routt Community Charter School has been working it out, fighting through a difficult startup phase to establish itself as a viable, successful school that holds true to its community-based vision.

The school, which opened its doors in the fall of 2001, has endured struggles, including the financial difficulties often encountered by new charter schools, administrative issues and, at times, a tense relationship with the Steamboat Springs School District.

But recent developments have North Routt Community Charter School leaders excited about the direction of the school and its future in the close-knit community of Clark.

Finally, they feel like they've got it going.

"We had a big corner to turn, and we finally did it," North Routt School Board President Chris Gander said. "We're so happy with the school right now."

The past year has been particularly busy for the school. In March, officials agreed to a three-year charter contract extension with the Steamboat Springs School District that will keep the school open -- pending enrollment -- through the 2006 academic year. The North Routt school, like all charter schools, is a public school that receives its funding through the local school district but is permitted to operate autonomously.

In June, the school announced it had fired Mary Bramer, its first and only director. The school needed to replace Bramer with someone who had more experience in school administration, Gander said at the time. A month later, the North Routt School Board unanimously approved the hiring of Colleen Poole, former principal at Hayden Middle School and a Clark-area resident.

Charter school officials also spent much of the summer working with the Education Fund Board and a local investment group to secure the property and buildings that house the 19-student school. The property is owned by Elk River Eagles, a group of North Routt community members with a desire to see the school succeed. But several of its members reportedly were interested in liquidating their assets, and the charter school lobbied the Fund Board for the money to purchase the school.

Ultimately, the school was able to work out a deal with Elk River Eagles whereby the group maintains ownership of the property while the school works on an ambitious capital campaign that Gander hopes will raise enough money for the school to purchase the land and buildings itself.

And the busy summer didn't end there.

The school hired Williams, former director of the South Routt School District's alternative school, and Amy Cosgrove as its teachers. Both instructors already have helped widen the scope of the school's academic program, Poole said.

Williams used school funds to purchase music equipment and introduce a music program to the school and Cosgrove brought her artistic talents to the classroom to expand the school's art program.

"We looked for people with backgrounds in a lot of different areas," Poole said.

A new playground area and a remodeled classroom, in addition to new computers and other educational resources, also have helped put a new face on the school.

But the change that most excites school officials is the introduction of a new educational program called Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound.

Expeditionary Learning emphasizes active learning, character growth and teamwork, often through field trips and other hands-on lessons. The program also provides an extensive professional development program for school staff.

School officials see the Expeditionary Learning program as an ideal tool to ensure that the school's vision of a community-based educational system that uses the resources of the area is met.

"We really want to explore the Outward Bound part of the model," Poole said. "Kids can learn a lot more when they're really involved. It's a whole culture shift for the school."

It's a shift that was a logical step for the school, Gander said.

"I think right now, we're truer to the original mission of the school than we've ever been," he said. "I really think the school is becoming a reflection of the community up there."

That's not to say the school always will enjoy smooth sailing. Financial obstacles always will face the school, Gander said, and the Expeditionary Learning program will take time to implement.

"It's going to take a little while," Poole said. "It can't happen overnight."

But with the continued support of the North Routt community, Poole and Gander are sure the school will have a successful future.

"Exactly what is happening now with the school is where we envisioned and hoped we'd be all along," Gander said.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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