New charter school customizes classes for K-5 students

Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 10:46 PM

With this week’s grand opening of The Juniper School, children now have more freedom and say-so in their education.

The Juniper School is a kindergarten through fifth-grade elementary school chartered through Durango School District 9-R. It is located above Big Picture High School at 215 E. 12th St.

Head of School Katie McCullough-Vanbuskirk said the school’s model sets it apart.

“We offer a hybrid curriculum of student-centered learning. We take the best parts of Montessori-, inquiry- and project-based learning and tie those to the needs of students,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “No curriculum model is doing what we are doing. We take where the students are at and support them and distinguish what their strengths and needs are.”

Charter schools are independently managed public schools operating under a contract between the school and a local or state authority, such as a school board.

Like district public schools, they are funded according to enrollment and receive funding from the district and the state. Often, they are underfunded compared to their district counterparts and rely on federal education grants.

Fundraising is another crucial aspect for funding charter schools.

The Juniper School delayed opening for one year after failing to receive a start-up grant in 2015 from the Colorado Department of Education.

In November 2016, the school received a grant from the Colorado Charter Schools Program that provides $215,000 annually for three years, effectively funding its opening for the 2017-18 school year.

Grant applications are reviewed on a point scale, with 135 points as the maximum score. A charter needs at least 85 points to be eligible for a grant, and The Juniper School received 131 points.

The Juniper School was developed over four years, and community input played a significant role in its development.

“There was a founding committee which consisted of myself, Michael Ackerman and Greg Ooley,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “Wanting to maintain this grass-roots effort and focus, we went out to the community to ask if this school was viable. We started with monthly listening sessions where we honed in on what the community wanted and was looking for, and how we could facilitate that. No one-size-fits-all. They wanted diversity.”

Every student has an individualized learning plan for each week, developed in collaboration with parents and teachers.

“Teachers observe the students and reflect on their progress at the end of every week,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “Our teachers are the keen observers of these students and proactive in implementing support where needed.”

McCullough-Vanbuskirk said all students learn at their own pace, and the school wants to foster that.

There are 120 students enrolled for the 2017-18 school year, with one class per grade level. There are two teachers per class – a master and a lead teacher – that keeps the ratio about one teacher to 12 students.

“A master teacher has more of a 10,000-foot view of the curriculum that needs implemented,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “The master teacher holds a bit more expertise or experience so that they have a wider perspective of what needs to be done with the curriculum. They are a keen analyzer.”

McCullough-Vanbuskirk said the school’s motto is “Authentic, diverse and active.”

“With everything we do, we ask ourselves this: Are we authentic, diverse and active? From our curriculum model, to the physical environment of the classroom,” she said.

The Juniper School is also partnering with local individuals and organizations to offer elective courses for students.

Partners include Stillwater Music, Seed Studio, San Juan Ballet School and more.

Students are enrolled in elective courses for six weeks at a time before their schedule rotates and they can take new classes.

“Part of our responsibility is to offer students experiences for life,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “We really want students to be immersed in these electives to see if this is something they are good at. They can pick and choose from arts and humanities courses, and have time to see if they really love it.”

Every elective is free and is offered during the school day. Often, children will take classes outside the classroom.

“This gets the kids to learn outside of the four walls of their classroom,” McCullough-Vanbuskirk said. “Most of these courses are taught at studios and businesses in the community. We are really providing students the opportunity to have an elementary education that fits their needs.”

Parents sign a permission slip at the beginning of the school year that allows the school to take students out of the classroom whenever deemed necessary.

For second-grade master teacher Stacey Mock, that is immensely important.

“We have the freedom to get students out in the community. When we want to take them out, we can,” Mock said. “It is not a stagnant classroom environment. It is exciting to be a teacher in the way that I feel everyone should teach.”

Mock previously taught at Columbine Christian School before taking a job at The Juniper School. She said the learning style is attractive.

“When I heard about the premise of the school, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Mock said. “We tell kids what to do their whole lives. We micromanage their behavior and take their responsibility away. They can make decisions for themselves. Here, they will learn and will also have a choice in how they get to do that.”

Mock said that while growing pains are expected, things are going well so far.

“There will be snags that we have to iron out, but the kids are already digging it,” she said. “They understand this school is different. I had a kid ask me yesterday, ‘Have I been bad?’ In his previous school, he had trouble. But he is doing very well in this environment. He seems to be thriving.”

4 Images

Amy Spurgeon, a fourth grade teacher at The Juniper School, leads a lesson Tuesday during the second day of classes at the new K-5 charter school. The school is located above Big Picture High School at 215 E. 12th St.
Head of School Katie McCullough-Vanbuskirk gets to know her students during lunchtime on Tuesday, the second day of classes at The Juniper School. McCullough-Vanbuskirk said the school’s hybrid learning model sets it apart from the rest.
Stacey Mock leads her second-grade class in exercising Tuesday at The Juniper School. Mock said the learning style implemented at the elementary school is what attracted her, and so far, students are thriving.
Molly Hays, 6, lines up for lunch Tuesday at The Juniper School. The elementary school is chartered through Durango School District 9-R, and opened Monday after being delayed for a year after failing to receive a start-up grant from the Colorado Department of Education.