Emily Bergstrom had been fielding text messages from new students all morning.
- What time does the bus come?
- Do I need school supplies?
- I’m going to be late for the bus.
- Do I need to drive myself?
After a marathon year setting up Boise’s new Cardinal Academy charter school, and a sprint to install carseats on buses that arrived weeks late, Cardinal’s executive director watched as a small yellow school bus drove up to the Emerald Street Salvation Army campus on Monday morning. The moment had finally arrived.
“This is so exciting,” Bergstrom said as she walked to greet the first students. “When things got really intense and really stressful, this is the moment I have been imagining. Once the first bus pulls up, we’ll be OK. And here we are.”
Cardinal Academy, a charter school designed for pregnant and parenting teens, opened its doors to about 50 students Monday. The opening day marked the start of a new era for the school, which used to operate as the Booth Marian Pritchett school under a longstanding partnership between the Salvation Army and the Boise School District. After declining enrollment at the school, Boise announced it would transition its parenting services to Frank Church alternative high school. Bergstrom, a longtime academic and career counselor at the Booth school, and co-founder Deborah Hedden-Nicely decided to open a charter.
Destiny Monay Bell, 19, was the last student to leave the first bus. Swaddled in a gray blanket in her arms was her 6-week-old daughter, Natallia.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Bergstrom said, greeting them on the front walk.
“Me too,” Bell replied. “I was really nervous.”
Cardinal is a fresh start for Bell, who was originally scheduled to graduate from high school with the class of 2020. Bell dropped out after failing classes her junior year, she said, when her ex knocked out her tooth and she didn’t want to go to school.
“I realized when I got out of that relationship, and I was just trying to live my life, that I missed school and I wish I’d tried harder,” she said. After graduating from Cardinal Academy, Bell plans to take college courses to find a good paying job.
Usually anxious around new people, Bell felt more confident than she expected as she walked into Cardinal for her first day. She wants to be helpful to other pregnant teens.
“If I was still pregnant and I saw someone with a baby already, I’d think, ‘Well, OK, they know how I feel right now,” she said. “I’d look up to them a little bit, because they already experienced it.”
Bell settled into her first class on Monday in a second-floor room overlooking a playground. While baby Natallia rested in her arms, some of her classmates’ children played at the daycare down below.
Cardinal Academy leases space from the Boise Salvation Army, and the Salvation Army offers the students a daycare on-site. Cardinal provides mental health counseling and doctor visits at the school. Students also have weekly access to an on-site store, where they can use “Booth Bucks,” earned through class participation to buy formula and clothes, cribs, toiletries and even a toddler’s race car bed. The school provides breakfast, lunch and snacks, and the Salvation Army has an on-site food pantry if students need help with meals outside of the school day.
The school’s six teachers cater to numerous grade levels, and work with students who have often experienced gaps in their education. Many of Cardinal’s students are returning to school after dropping out for a time, either during or before the pandemic.
Cardinal’s mission has attracted staff invested in the school’s unique focus. Sandy Scott, who teaches Family & Consumer Sciences, thought she was done with teaching after a particularly challenging year as a math teacher at Kuna’s Falcon Ridge Charter. She applied to help with office work at Cardinal and instead was hired to teach the students about early childhood development, personal finances and life skills. Science teacher Hannah Green was teaching kindergarten in Arizona, and dropped everything to move to Idaho. Allison Doyle, Cardinal’s English teacher, left the Homedale School District to work at the charter whose mission hits close to home: Doyle’s parents were young when she was born.
As Doyle introduced herself to a quiet group of upperclassmen on Monday morning, she ran them through some of her class protocols: If a student needed to check on their kiddo downstairs, they should use a sign-out sheet on the wall. If they needed to nurse, the library next door is available, as is a cozy nook at the back of the room with a rug and some floor cushions. Burp cloths and baby bibs are under the pencil sharpener.
“They treat us more like adults,” said Ellyssa, an 11th-grader who expects a baby within the next month. Ellyssa was afraid she’d get bullied if she returned to her traditional school pregnant. At Cardinal, she’s not alone. She’s also looking forward to the parenting classes provided by the school.
“I don’t know much about raising kids. Coming here I can get a high school diploma while getting the parenting skills,” she said.
The 50 students enrolled at Cardinal are fewer than half of the school’s capacity. The facility needs more like 100 students to be financially independent, Bergstrom said, but it has received enough support from the Salvation Army and in philanthropic donations that it can afford to operate for multiple years until it meets that threshold. She’s optimistic the school can reach that benchmark by year four.
Though it might take time for Cardinal Academy to build its student base, special education teacher Krista Smith expects the school’s lessons will have an immediate impact on the kids already enrolled.
“It’s not like, hypothetically, I’m teaching you things so that down the road you can have a job and a family,” said Smith. “No, that’s here. That’s now.”