IDAHO FALLS — Michelle Ball quit her teaching job at Sunnyside Elementary two years ago to homeschool 24 students.
No salary. No benefits. No Thanksgiving turkey voucher.
Her new classroom was spare space in the basement of the old courthouse in downtown Idaho Falls.
Her students and their parents had also come from Sunnyside — pulled away by a love for Ball’s teaching methods.
“She just gets it,” said parent Kimri Murphy. “I can’t tell you how much my third-grader has grown since he began spending time with Mrs. Ball.”
For over two decades, Ball oversaw Sunnyside’s multi-age, or spectrum, learning program. Instead of instruction based on age, she built curriculums catered to students’ abilities. But after a clash with her school’s more traditional K-12 bent and a shift towards a new learning model, Ball decided to take her methods elsewhere.
And word spread. Within a year, her homeschool at the courthouse had morphed into one of Idaho Falls’ largest charter schools: Alturas International Academy, which caters to 270 students housed in the old Melaleuca building off Yellowstone Ave.
Clad in a skirt and sneakers, Ball, 61, reminisced on her time at Sunnyside and outlined how multi-age learning ultimately triggered her dissent from a district she’d worked in for more than 30 years.
“Education’s been the same in this country for a long time,” she said. “My program didn’t really fit at Sunnyside. I didn’t really fit there, so I jumped off a cliff.”
Moving toward a multi-age model
Multi-age learning enables students to work in groups based solely on instructional levels, not grade levels. Grades and ages are thus mixed, and teachers spend most of their time walking around classrooms facilitating discussion and providing feedback.
At Alturas, tables replace desks so students can work together. Chalkboards are nearly nonexistent and teachers lecture less and engage more in one-on-one teaching.
Ball says she first heard about the model from a fellow teacher at Sunnyside 20 years ago. At first skeptical, she said the method’s emphasis on ability over age eventually won her over.
“The more I learned, the more I loved it,” she said. “I would never teach a student who is reading novels about the alphabet, regardless of their age. It’s just plain common sense not to do that.”
Within a few years, Ball was running Sunnyside’s spectrum class for first, second and third graders. She was also instrumental in creating other spectrum programs in the district.
“I had all the autonomy and support I could ever ask for,” she said. “It was really a good thing.”
Sunnyside’s shift toward expeditionary learning
But through the years, Ball saw where multi-age models fell short in a traditional school.
To provide rigorous coursework for some of her third graders, she admits venturing into concepts covered by fourth and fifth grade teachers at Sunnyside — some of whom hadn’t bought into spectrum methods.
She didn’t discuss claims that she was stepping on others’ toes, but did say it got more difficult to run the program as time went on. Plus, administrators started dissolving multi-age programs in the district.
The cuts came during Sunnyside’s school-wide shift toward an expeditionary learning model, a project-based method that emphasizes student expeditions and cumulative projects, presentations and portfolios.
“At first we thought the expeditionary learning program could happen along with multi-age learning,” said Sunnyside Elementary principal Lance Lindlay. “But then we learned that wasn’t the best way to go about implementation.”
With less support for multi-age learning, Ball left the district in 2014-15.
“I understand things from the district’s perspective. Moving that many people toward the model would have been a radical change,” she said.
Then a Sunnyside parent suggested a multi-age charter school — something Ball initially balked at.
For years, Ball took issue with much of Idaho’s embrace of charters. Because Idaho schools receive funding based primarily on average daily attendance, districts lose money when they lose students to charter schools.
“If you would’ve told me two years ago that I’d be running a charter today, I wouldn’t believe you,” she said.
But the Sunnyside parents rallied around the idea, and Ball’s reluctance eventually faded.
“I came to believe that this model could help so many students,” she said. “And I know it has.”
Within months, Ball and her band of Sunnyside dissidents secured the charter for Alturas.
Kimri Murphy is an original Sunnyside parent. All four of her children now attend Alturas.
She says Ball’s methods were the only thing she could find to help her son Landon, who’s now a third grader.
As a kindergartner, Landon underwent “every test you could think of” to understand his learning disability.
“I was to the point of tears,” said Murphy. “I know it seems crazy, but (Landon) was completely broken as a kindergartener. At such a young age, he lost all confidence in his own ability to learn.”
Doctors diagnosed Landon with ADHD, but Murphy says it was Ball’s first-grade spectrum class at Sunnyside that made all the difference.
“She told me my son wasn’t stupid, but that he just had a hard time learning in a traditional classroom,” Murphy said. “She literally taught me how to teach my son at home, too.”
Murphy said Landon fostered a love for learning within months of being in Ball’s class. Her only concern now is what will happen to her children after leaving Alturas, which currently serves kids in grades 1-6.
Alturas principal Steven Andrew says he and and Ball are in the process of extending service to seventh and eighth graders. They’ve already secured the extra space. Next year, the school will move across town to the historic O.E. Bell building to accommodate growing enrollment.
Had Ball stayed at Sunnyside, she’d likely be retired now. Expanding Alturas has her rethinking what she wants to do in the next decade.
“I’ll be here another five or ten years,” she said. “I know they need me.”