Remote mountain town rallies around new charter school

ISLAND PARK — The shriek of a circular saw rang through the woods that surround the old Star Lite Motel near Mack’s Inn Resort in Island Park.

Cutting and cobbling strips of vinyl flooring is one renovation toward transforming the bygone eight-room motel into the remote mountain town’s sole public school.

“People here have wanted this for years,” said Connie Day, founder and soon-to-be teacher at Island Park Charter School. “It’s all about access.”

Island Park Charter School will later this month open its doors to local students from pre-kindergarten to third grade. The opening follows thousands of dollars in donations, dozens of hours from volunteers and a local push to improve access to public education for kids in the highly rural community.

Volunteers install flooring and paint walls inside Island Park Charter School.

For decades, families in the tourist town on the road to Yellowstone National Park have faced a primary choice: Embrace homeschool or bus youngsters some 30 miles down the mountain to the Fremont County School District’s Ashton Elementary School.

Bus rides to Ashton can take almost two hours.

Connie Day

“My son would get so hungry because you can’t eat on the bus,” said Greer Sutton, whose second-grader, Sullivan, will attend the charter school this fall.

Sporting a belly shirt and blond dreadlocks, Greer Sutton helped other volunteers hoist stripped carpet from the motel onto a truck bed bound for the local landfill. Unlike thousands of tourists who each summer descend on Island Park’s array of rivers, lakes and campsites, the Suttons are among fewer than 300 year-round residents willing to brave the town’s brutal winters. The family owns a local restaurant down the road from the new school.

It’s a great lifestyle, Greer Sutton said, but the lack of a nearby school has been hard for the family. In addition to long bus rides, the distance between Island Park and Ashton has made it difficult for Sullivan to attend after-school extracurricular activities.

“That’s been pretty hard for him,” Greer Sutton said.

Day, a former teacher at White Pine Charter School in Idaho Falls, heard the lament of Island Park families such as the Suttons while vacationing in the area. Last year, she floated the idea of opening a local charter school.

Overwhelming support followed. Local resident Chad Bauer donated the motel. More than $3,000 in other donations rolled in, with at least one donation showing up anonymously in the school’s account. Retired teachers, parents and residents volunteered to help teach students and renovate the building.

Residents remove carpets from the former motel during renovations.

Fremont County School District trustees have also supported Day’s idea. In May, they agreed to authorize the school’s operating charter, a rare move in a state where school districts continue to lose students — and funding — to nearby charter schools.

Day said the charter will be a feeder to district schools.

“I think (the district) sees the benefit of having a school here,” Day said. “It’s what’s best for the students.”

Fremont County Superintendent Byron Stutzman served as a member of the charter school’s founding board.

Despite the support, some bumps accompanied the school’s path to charterdom. Leaders missed the deadline for receiving state funding for the upcoming school year. As a result, Day and retired teacher Margret Christophersen said they will teach the school’s incoming 16 students on a volunteer basis this year. Next year, when funding kicks in, the school plans to increase enrollment to 30 students.

Day recently sold her house in Idaho Falls, and plans to live year-round in Island Park. Until state funding kicks in, she’s drawing state retirement from her time as a teacher — and using health coverage accumulated from sick days to get through the school’s first year.

“This year, we’ll get paid in hugs and kisses,” Christophersen said.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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