White Pine Charter School Principal Jeremy Clarke likes to tell a story about the day he was schooled by his 8th grade students.
White Pine, a public charter school in Ammon, has a dress code: navy, light blue, red or white collared shirts and khaki or navy bottoms. The only exceptions are “spirit days” — or so school administrators thought. The 8th grade students found a loophole that would allow purple hoodies, a privilege that can be seen on many of the older students walking the halls.
“A lot of the kids here are brilliant,” Clarke says. “But they’re allowed to figure out they’re brilliant. There’s no one correct way to do things.”
That kind of independent thinking has been the key to White Pine’s success. As the school matures into an elder statesman among Idaho’s charter institutions, it’s scrambling to meet the needs of the communities it serves. Its plans are ambitious: A second K-8 school and an expansion into dual-track high school.
All of White Pine’s expansion plans are still in the nascent stages; school leaders are engaged in conversations with the Idaho New School Trust, Building Hope, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and other partners about options for making their plans real. White Pine’s dual-track high school would be unlike any other high school in the state, perhaps in the nation. If their plans come to fruition, students would choose between a traditional track or a medical track. Those on the traditional track would earn college credits thanks to concurrent enrollment with a higher education institution; those on the medical track would graduate as certified nursing assistants, medical assistants or paramedics.
A medical-track public charter high school, Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School, already exists in the Treasure Valley. But a dual-track high school could serve eastern Idaho’s booming medical needs, Clarke says. Eastern Idaho is home to, among others, Bingham Memorial Hospital, Madison Memorial Hospital, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, Portneuf Medical, Mountain View Hospital, and the state’s medical education powerhouse, Idaho State University.
It’s an ambitious dream, and one that hasn’t been submitted to the state or possible funders for approval. There’s also talk of an additional K-8 campus that would serve the other side of Bonneville Joint District #93. Clarke says the current school had 64 openings this year and 492 applications.
“We have such large waiting lists that we know we could fill another school,” says parent and White Pine board chair Nick Burrows.
More than a decade of growth
It’s been a long journey to White Pine’s current success, says Vice Principal Randy Crisler. Crisler joined the school shortly after it was founded in 2003.
“We’ve grown a lot since my first year, when everyone was part-time and we didn’t really have a lot of extracurricular activities, to now offering extracurricular activities and robotics and the GATE program,” Crisler says, referring to the school’s gifted and talented education program. “So it’s been fun.”
White Pine built its permanent facility in Ammon in 2006. The school follows the Core Knowledge model, founded by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., which emphasizes a broad, content-heavy knowledge of science, arts, literature, history and geography. The idea is that students need a foundation of knowledge they can then employ in critical thinking. As the Core Knowledge Foundation puts it, “… what children are able to learn at any given moment depends on what they already know — and, equally important, that what they know if a function of previous experience and teaching.”
Backing up the Core Knowledge model are the White Pine teachers, Clarke says.
“We look for uncommon teachers to do uncommon things,” Clarke says. “I can go hire a traditional teacher; that’s not difficult. They can go and teach what everyone else teaches. We want uncommon teachers who do it a little bit differently, who think a little bit differently, because those are the people who gets things done.”
They’re often getting things done long after school ends. “We had to set the alarm to go off to get the teachers to leave,” Burrows said. The alarm now rings at 9 p.m.
The school hasn’t always stuck faithfully to the Core Knowledge model. White Pine went through some turbulent years: In 2012, then-Principal Terry Rothamer was arrested in connection with a burglary of an eastern Idaho restaurant and resigned soon after.
When Clarke took the helm after Rothamer’s departure, he realized the school needed to re-focus.
“There have been some things that we’ve had to leave behind that were difficult,” Clarke says. “At one time we said we were a Core Knowledge school, but we didn’t really focus on it. We recommitted ourselves to Core Knowledge, saying, ‘We will do this, this is our identity.’ Some of the things that didn’t apply to Core Knowledge went away. And some of those were pet projects of teachers or of others.”
The teachers got on board, Clarke says. One instructor left because she had to move, but the rest stayed. The work paid off: White Pine received a 4-star ranking from the Idaho Department of Education for the 2011-2012 school year. When the rankings came out the following year, White Pine had jumped to 5 stars.
“We pride ourselves on being the most challenging public school in eastern Idaho, and we’re unabashed about that,” Clarke says. “That being said, that doesn’t mean we don’t service every kid. We just make sure they’re challenged wherever they’re at. And we have a lot of fun doing it.”
Students are tested at least monthly, and often every two to three weeks, both in the classroom and the computer lab. Teachers meet regularly to go over results and adjust their teaching methods, if needed.
“It’s not so much so we can say that everyone tests better, but let’s be honest: Those who are familiar with testing are more comfortable with it,” Clarke says. “We’re just providing them an avenue. When they sit down in front of a national standardized test, it’s just a test. It’s no big deal. We’ve taught them how to think, we’ve taught them how to reason.”
Funding for the future
White Pine’s big plans require big money. As Burrows says, the dual-track high school, if it progresses, will require a lot of resources. “That’s going to require equipment, that’s going to require partnerships,” he says. “There’s going to have to be grant writing and fundraising to just equip those programs and for those students to learn what they need to.”
White Pine, like all of Idaho’s public charter schools, operates on lean rations. The school’s state funding is supplemented by the fundraising of its Parent-Family Association, but White Pine has also received public and private grant support over the years. The Albertson Foundation gave the school a grant recently to develop a business plan, which includes its expansion.
Clarke and Burrows would like to hire a grant writer to pay for the school’s expansion and development. The needs are great: medical equipment, teachers and a new building.
“Charter schools don’t get access to public bond and local levy dollars,” Crisler says. “If we want to build a new school, we can’t take it to the community and have them help us with that. We have to do it with our own means.”
“We love donors!” Burrows adds, half-jokingly. But he and Clarke stress that the school is determined to expand in a meaningful, if unorthodox, way.
“When we talk about what we want to do in the future, it’s not just pie in the sky, how are we going to get there,” Clarke says. “We’ve got a pretty good strategic plan that we’re now finally putting down on paper to go after it. … As a board, as a school, as an administration, we’ve all grown.”
This is the second in a six-part series featuring Idaho charter schools. The first was about Boise’s Anser Charter. This series is being provided by the Idaho New School Trust.
Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.