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For proposed outdoor learning charter school, finding a home is next step

Michelle Theriault Boots
Bill Roth

With school board approval, a new charter school devoted to using Southcentral Alaska as a laboratory to teach middle-schoolers through outdoor expeditions is one step closer to opening its doors.

But the fledgling STREAM Academy -- the name stands for science, technology, research, engineering, art and math -- has some major hurdles to clear before it becomes the Anchorage School District's first dedicated charter middle school.

The first and biggest challenge may be finding a place to call home.

The Anchorage School Board approved the school's charter application with a 7-0 vote on Monday night, but said the school would need to secure a building space by Feb. 15 in order to move forward with opening next school year.

The idea for STREAM Academy grew out of a conversation between two like-minded Begich Middle School teachers, said Andranel Brown, one of the project's original founders and a language-arts teacher at the school.

One moment crystallized the need for an outdoor education-oriented school: When teachers took students on an end-of-the-year bike ride to the "Planet Walk," a student riding on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail commented that he'd never been so far away from home before.

Begich teachers found that many of their students had never visited the forests, mountains and glaciers that surround Anchorage, she said.

Teachers thought: Why not actually use Southcentral Alaska itself as the delivery method for learning?

"We wanted to get kids connected to their environment. If there's a real world application to it, even better," said Liz Scribner Repetto, a Begich counselor who is also on the team of founders.

STREAM Academy would use an "expeditionary learning" model, which emphasizes students getting outside of the classroom and into nature or the community to undertake research projects. More than 100 expeditionary learning schools exist in the Lower 48, from small-town Maine to the Bronx.

The approach was pioneered by the founder of the outdoor-education group Outward Bound. Several STREAM founders are Outward Bound alumni or former instructors.

In practice, Scribner Repetto said, expeditionary learning might look like this:

Sixth graders would study the flora of a local stream, while seventh graders looked at the fauna and eighth graders analyzed the chemical makeup. All three would make a report to the local watershed council about their findings.

Students learning the history of Anchorage might interview the descendents of city founders and investigate the people behind names like the Loussac Library.

Outside-the-classroom activities like that just don't fit in the school day of a traditional middle school, Brown said.

"The charter school has a bit more autonomy and flexibility."

As an ASD school, STREAM Academy would still be required to teach common core curriculum and give kids the same standardized tests taken by other students.

They'd like to eventually enroll 300 students from grades 6-8 and expect to employ about 18 teachers, Brown said.

QUESTIONS OF COST

On Monday, school board members expressed concerns that with the district looking to slash $23 million from next year's budget and teacher layoffs almost certain, a charter school would be fighting for scarce resources.

"I haven't really gotten what the impact and cost to the district is," said school board member Pat Higgins.

Charter schools are publicly funded alternatives that are free to students.

Anchorage has had them since the late 1990s.

The first, Walden Pond, initially rented space at the Dimond Mall. It closed in 2000 due to low enrollment.

Other attempts floundered before they ever got off the ground.

The Do Something Charter School (school type: "Alternative, Business, Technical"), proposed in 1997, never opened.

Neither did S.P.Y.D.E.R (school type: "sports focused"), which was proposed the same year.

But other charter schools, among them Aquarian Charter School and Winterberry Charter School, are established and highly sought-after by parents. Last year both elementary schools had waiting lists of hundreds of students.

Other successful ASD charters offer homeschool, correspondence, technical and German language immersion programs.

Most of their money comes from state base student allocation funds, which follow public school students wherever they go.

The district wouldn't have to spend more money to open Stream Academy, Scribner-Repetto said.

Funding STREAM Academy would be a shift of existing resources, not an increased cost to the district, she said.

The academy's budget is still under development with the Foraker Group and the district, Brown said.

LOOMING DEADLINE

The hardest part of starting a new school can be finding a place to house it, said Shanna Mall, the founding principal of the Waldorf-inspired Winterberry Charter School.

Unlike other ASD schools, charters pay for their own buildings.

That cost can eat up a quarter or more of the budget, principals say. Extra costs like equipment and teacher development are offset by fundraising.

There are few pieces of existing commercial property in Anchorage both large enough and affordable for fledgling charter schools. And schools must secure leases before they can even guarantee that they'll have enough students -- and money -- to open. Expensive retrofits are often necessary.

STREAM Academy is looking for a building "in the neighborhood of 30,000 square feet" that would meet educational zoning requirements, said Andranel Brown, a Begich language arts teacher.

The founders say they are committed to locating the school in East Anchorage.

Winterberry's road to stability was rocky: At first, the school was going to be housed in Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. It didn't make minimum enrollment of 150 in its first two years and lost out on state funding. It operated with a budget of about $600,000.

To cut costs, Mall was both a teacher and the principal. At one point, leaders considered housing the school in a series of yurts.

Winterberry is now located in a gleaming, cozy building in East Anchorage, complete with kitchens in the classrooms and walls the color of winter sunrises.

STREAM founders say with the Feb. 15 deadline looming they're in talks with private landlords as well as the district about possible locations.

The founders -- all of whom are still full-time classroom teachers and counselors -- have fronted their own time and money for years to get STREAM Academy going.

They want to take the time to find the right place, even if it means a delay in opening, Brown said.

"We are a bunch of dedicated educators," she said. "We want this to be a product everyone in the community is proud of."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com