Chubbuck charter moving into Sears department store

CHUBBUCK — Workers on a scissor lift hoisted a basketball hoop onto an interior wall of the old Sears department store in Chubbuck on Tuesday.

A full-sized court is just one renovation aimed at turning the bygone retail store into a K-12 charter school equipped to absorb hundreds of local students in the coming years. Chubbuck-based charter school Gem Prep Pocatello plans to move in next month.

The school announced last year it would be leaving its current location — a former private school at the end of a residential street — and moving into the 78,000-square-foot facility, which has sat vacant for years and is part of Chubbuck’s Pine Ridge Mall.

Since that announcement, classrooms, office space, collaborative learning labs, a lunchroom and commons area have taken shape inside the former store. Outside, three acres of what used to be a parking lot is now prepped for a fenced-in playground, walking track, basketball courts and sports field.

Gem Prep Pocatello principal Gerald Love (left) and Gem Innovations Schools director of development Shay Angelo stand in front of the Chubbuck-based charter school’s new location, a former Sears department store.

Gem Prep leaders say the new facility will allow the K-6 charter to expand enrollment from 180 elementary students to 580 K-12 students by the 2022-23 school year — and bring the school’s emphasis on college prep and career-technical learning to more local students, including some 200 now waiting to get in.

Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps charter schools secure loans for facilities, purchased the Sears building and will lease it to Gem Prep Pocatello. Once the lease is up, the school will buy the building, Gem Prep Pocatello principal Gerald Love said.

Charter schools cannot tap into local taxes. And since Idaho’s first charter schools opened over 20 years ago, they’ve struggled to cover building costs.

The purchase and renovations for the Sears building add up to over $6 million, said Gem Innovations Schools director of development Shay Angelo.

Similar expansion models have played out at charter schools across Idaho. Last year, Building Hope provided financing for an Idaho Falls charter school’s cross-town move to an historic downtown building.

School choice advocates say the statewide push to expand Idaho charters provides added educational options for kids. Supporters point to some of the state’s highest standardized test scores and unique learning frameworks as evidence of success.

But many Idaho charters also are among the state’s lowest-performing schools. And though public opinion surrounding their effectiveness varies, some critics and traditional K-12 educators question the prudence of charter schools altogether, citing a lack of diversity compared to Idaho’s traditional schools and funding repercussions in the wake of their expansion.

Love acknowledged the financial impacts charters can have on school districts in a state where K-12 funding is based largely on average daily student attendance. Most Gem Prep Pocatello students are transplants from the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District.

Around 67 percent of students who applied to Gem Prep this year reported being in Pocatello-Chubbuck schools, according to a 2019-20 application questionnaire. Some families did not state their prior school, Angelo said. Around 33 percent of this year’s applicants reported attending a private, charter, virtual, homeschool, or a school outside Pocatello-Chubbuck’s boundaries, Shay said.

Pocatello-Chubbuck School District Superintendent Doug Howell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how he expects Gem Prep’s expansion to impact his district’s schools.

Love said, “We’re cannon-ballers. We like to take risks. This will be great for so many kids.”

Achievement at Gem Prep Pocatello

Concept photo of a completed Gem Prep Pocatello

Gem Prep Pocatello students surpassed their statewide peers on the state’s latest Idaho Reading Indicator, which measures reading proficiency among K-3 students.

Eighty percent of the school’s students were reading at grade level by spring 2018, scores show. The statewide average was 72 percent.

ISAT results are harder to compare, since the school’s spring test scores only measured students in grades three through six. Those scores showed 55 percent proficiency in English language arts and 54 percent in math. State averages, which also include scores for seventh- and eighth-graders and high school sophomores, showed 54 percent proficiency in ELA and 44 percent in math.

More about the school

Gem Prep Pocatello opened in 2014 with 42 kindergarteners and first graders. The school, which is adding seventh- and eighth-grade classes this fall, is planning for 335 students this school year. The school is adding an extra classroom in grades K-3.

Angelo said the school hired nine new teachers this summer.

The new Sears campus will accommodate both Gem Prep Pocatello and Gem Innovation School’s Southeast Idaho online school resource center.

Subsequent expansion plans include:

  • 2020-2021: Adding four to six additional K-8 classrooms and expanding services to high school freshman and sophomores.
  • 2021-2022: Expanding to include services for juniors.
  • 2022-2023: Expanding to include services for seniors.

The school will hold an open house exclusively for enrolled families on Aug. 12. It will hold a ribbon cutting ceremony on Aug. 15.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

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