Kristin Bozarth walked with her class of about a dozen eighth-graders through the muddy trails of Arnold L. Muldoon Park on Tuesday morning. They stopped at the exercise stations — balancing on wooden beams and flipping through the air as they held onto metal rings.
The students talked. They ran. They teased one another. They acted like any group of young teenagers released into the rain-sodden outdoors after an early morning of indoor learning.
Exploring the outdoors is a cornerstone of the students' new school, the Anchorage STrEaM Academy. It's the newest establishment in Anchorage School District's fleet of public charter schools, welcoming middle school students for the first time this week after the school's founders said they spent years searching for an appropriate, inexpensive and empty space on the city's east side.
STrEaM ultimately landed on the bottom floor of Wayland Baptist University, a private, religious school in East Anchorage. The charter school uses the building's rooms in the morning and afternoon, while Wayland holds classes there in the evening, said Principal Adam Mokelke, whose office has a whiteboard with a picture drawn of a globe and the words: "Explorers Wanted."
"Kids need to learn by doing and learn hands-on, and kids need to get outdoors. This is Alaska," said Mokelke, a former principal at the Lake and Peninsula School District, headquartered in King Salmon, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.
At STrEaM, students will use project-based learning to focus on science, technology, engineering and math — as highlighted in the school's unconventional capitalization. Its lowercase letters stand for research and the arts, which are also intertwined into school days, said Andranel Brown, one of the school's founders.
Brown once worked as a teacher at Begich Middle School and still works for ASD. She said STrEaM grew out of conversations between herself and other East Anchorage educators who identified the need for a charter school in the city's east side devoted to using the outdoors as a laboratory to teach middle-schoolers. Brown said the teachers had taken their students on outdoor field trips to places like Kincaid Park and some students said it was the farthest they had been from home.
She said it felt "surreal" to watch the school finally take shape, after pouring hundreds of hours into its creation. The Anchorage School Board unanimously approved its charter application in 2013 and the hunt for a building began.
"I'm overwhelmed. I'm excited. I'm humbled," Brown said as tears filled her eyes.
Most days, STrEaM's students will rotate through seven periods, plus lunch, during their school day. They go to math, science, social studies and language arts classes. They also have one elective and gym class, though Mokelke said it should be called "outdoor adventure education."
The school emphasizes that students get outside of the classroom and into nature or the community to undertake research projects, in line with an education philosophy called "expeditionary learning." It's an approach followed by more than 100 schools nationwide.
Mokelke said all of STrEaM's classes will tap into larger themes as the school year goes on. Currently, students are learning about recycling and soon fisheries. The school will bring in guest speakers and go on related field trips. They plan to raise salmon fry in the classroom.
Students will also take at least one field trip with the whole school each month. They'll likely visit a hatchery for the fisheries unit. Mokelke hopes to make it up to Hatcher Pass, and someday, take students backpacking on the Crow Pass Trail between Girdwood and Eagle River.
On Tuesday, the outdoor activity was closer to school. In a nearby grassy patch, Scott Perkins, a social studies and physical education teacher, had his students line up in two rows, their backs facing one another. They played a game of "bear-fish-mosquito" — an Alaska version of "rock-paper-scissors."
Nyha Gibson, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, stood among the students who curled their fingers into claws to represent a bear or wiggled their arms, with their palms together, as a fish.
Gibson once went to Eagle River Academy, another ASD charter school. She said her friend's mom introduced STrEaM to Gibson's family and they felt it would be a good fit for their shy daughter who loves exploring the outdoors and using her phone to take photographs of trees, flowers and leaves. At STrEaM, Gibson said she participates in a photography elective.
"I get to do a lot more outdoor activity and hands-on here," Gibson said on her second day of school.
Other students had their own reasons for attending the new charter school. Some said they went to STrEaM for its smaller class sizes. Some said they went for its focus on the outdoors and STEM education. Others still said they didn't like their old schools, where they were bullied or got into fights.
"It was a new start for me," said Natalie Miller, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who once went to Begich Middle School.
Alexa Todd, another 13-year-old eighth-grade student, said she wants to become a biomedical engineer one day. She's already a member of an award-winning robotics team. She said her mom heard about the new charter school on Facebook and liked its science focus.
"It's kind of cool to go on a field trip every month," Todd said.
Eighty students in grades 6 through 8 attend STrEaM, which employs five full-time teachers and one part-time teacher, Mokelke said. He said some students come from what he described as "REI families" who camp or hike each weekend, while others hardly ever step outdoors. The goal is to get students outside everyday as part of their school routine.
Mokelke said he is hoping to enroll 10 more students at STrEaM this school year. The school is open to any Anchorage student — though there is no bus to the building — and they can apply through the district's lottery system. Brown said the charter school reserves about 30 percent of its slots for East Anchorage students. By Tuesday, Mokelke said between 25 percent and 30 percent of students were from the broader area, around Wayland Baptist University.
Despite STrEaM's location at Wayland, it has no religious affiliation, Brown said, and cannot as a public charter school that receives state and local money.
In one classroom, a sign over the whiteboard read: "Be Still and Know that I am God," though a teacher had stuck a sticky note with the word "here" over the word "God." At the end of each day, the teachers must return the classrooms to how they found them, Bozarth said.
Bozarth recently moved to Anchorage with her family after working at a U.S. Department of Defense school in Spain. At STrEaM, she teaches social studies, physical education and photography. As she walked with her students through Anchorage's trails early Tuesday, she quizzed them on the three things to remember.
"Stay on the path!" one said.
Plus, Bozarth, told them "noise awareness." Talk to one person, she said, not five.
"Leave this area better than you found it," added another student.
As they walked back to their school and up Muldoon Road in Tuesday's drizzle, Bozarth started to quietly pick up trash embedded in the brush. Other students followed. At the school, they created a small pile, which Bozarth said they would later discuss. It's all part of the lesson. It's all, she said, part of preparing them for the practical world.