Last week, hours after thousands of students across town grabbed their backpacks and entered their classrooms for the start of the 2015-16 school year, a brand-new Anchorage charter school hosted its first open house in the wing of a downtown church.
The students attending the new school, P.A.I.D.E.I.A. Cooperative School, won't start their classes at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage until Monday. Some of the school's roughly 100 students may never actually set foot in the school's doors, and instead complete their classes remotely.
P.A.I.D.E.I.A. Principal Monte Thacker described Anchorage School District's newest charter school as an innovative hybrid -- a mashup of a charter school and home-school program that will tailor individualized learning plans to its students' passions and promote flexible scheduling.
"Not everyone is designed the same," Thacker said. "It's not one size fits all."
P.A.I.D.E.I.A., a K-12 school, caters to both the correspondent students who receive their schooling at home and the home-school students who want to take some classes in a traditional classroom setting. It gives both groups the ability to craft their own schedules, Thacker said.
The school will host optional field trip Fridays, he said, and "exploratory" Mondays, during which students can come into school for music, art and Japanese classes. Teachers will also hold core classes at the school three days a week, Thacker said.
Spelled out, P.A.I.D.E.I.A. stands for "Passionately Accommodating Individual Desires, Enhancing Independent Achievement." The term stems from the word "paideia," which the school's website defines as the "whole training and education of children relating to the cultivation of mind and morals."
Sandra McMahon, a member of P.A.I.D.E.I.A.'s exploratory Academic Policy Committee, said those who started the school fell in love with the word "paideia" and then crafted it into an acronym that was based on the school's mission.
The idea for the new school first percolated among a subsection of Anchorage's home-schooling community. The group met in 2014, she said, and started discussing: "If we had a magic wand and we could develop a program that was exactly what we were looking for, what would it be?"
The group, which McMahon said was "very fluid," eventually landed on what Thacker called a "distributive learning model" that leans on partnerships between teachers and parents as well as provides additional support and structure for home-schooling families.
"In order for the child to be successful, the parents are going to have to be heavily involved in this," Thacker said.
The formal process to become a public charter school began with an application submitted to the Anchorage School Board last year, McMahon said. That 25-page application included the school's mission and philosophy along with its organizational structure, budget and employment plans. The Anchorage School Board unanimously approved P.A.I.D.E.I.A.'s charter application in December.
Anchorage School Board member Tam Agosti-Gisler said Wednesday that the school is "just one more opportunity to differentiate education to meet students' needs."
About the school's mission, she said, "It's a tall order, but an exciting opportunity."
P.A.I.D.E.I.A. is one of nine charters in Anchorage School District's fleet this school year. (Charter schools have existed in Anchorage since the late 1990s as publicly funded alternatives to neighborhood schools).
Before it opened, P.A.I.D.E.I.A. also had to get its charter approved by the State Board of Education and Early Development. The Board passed it unanimously in June.
"None of us thought it was going to go as fast as it did," McMahon said.
Other steps the school had to complete prior to Monday's opening included acquiring a lease and proposing a three-year budget. P.A.I.D.E.I.A. will pay a portion of its budget to lease seven classrooms at First Presbyterian. The school is not affiliated with the church, McMahon said.
The Anchorage School District approved a three-year budget for P.A.I.D.E.I.A. earlier this year that put its first school year budget at an estimated $1,749,250 if it enrolled 250 students. Currently, Thacker said, the school expects to start Monday with roughly 100 students -- which will alter how much funding it gets. The school hopes to grow that number to 150 or 200 in the coming weeks, he said.
To attend P.A.I.D.E.I.A., students had to enter the Anchorage School District's lottery. It's the same process any student or parent must embark on to qualify for a charter school, alternative program or neighborhood school outside of their zones.
P.A.I.D.E.I.A. needed at least 75 students signed up through the lottery -- a number it surpassed. So far, it has hired five part-time teachers, a principal and a business manager, among other staff, Thacker said. The school intends to add staff as the school grows -- focusing on hiring flexible, creative employees, he said.
"We're not here to say, 'No.' We're here to say, 'How can we help you?' Because that's what we're about -- serving kids," he said.
Tracey Godfrey, 27 of Anchorage, attended P.A.I.D.E.I.A.'s open house with her 8-year-old daughter, Avianna Myers. Godfrey said the school's flexible scheduling fits with her daughter's full gymnastics program. She often spends at least half of her day at Arctic Gymnastics, Godfrey said.
A handful of Myers' friends from gymnastics are also looking to make the switch to P.A.I.D.E.I.A., Godfrey said.
"She's super excited," she said.
Thacker said the school's classroom offerings continue to evolve as it accepts additional students and understands all of their needs.
"We're sort of building this airplane as we go, I guess. Because again, we want to meet those needs, but we don't know all those needs," he said. "Every day is a challenge but every day is an exciting new day."