Idyllic campus is grounded in classical teaching and the outdoors

The new charter school campus near Bonners Ferry has a long history of helping kids connect with the outdoors. North Idaho Classical Academy plans to open in 2025 using Barney Charter School Initiative curriculum, a Hillsdale College outreach program. The campus was previously an outdoor school then treatment center for teenagers.

BONNERS FERRY — The pastoral charter school campus outside of Bonners Ferry will continue the decades-long legacy providing unique curriculum in an outdoor setting for North Idaho kids.

“What they’re really looking for is for kids to get out from behind screens and reconnect with the natural world around them,” Stephen Lambert said in an earlier interview with Bluum. He is executive director of American Classical Schools of Idaho (ACSI).

The tree-lined asphalt road leading to North Idaho Classical Academy (NICA) is surrounded by white peaks, tall pines and timbered slopes. Cattle dot the landscape. Political signs interrupt the bucolic picture — Shuman or Stolley for sheriff and Herndon or Woodward for Senate. 

Pillowy-clouds hide Clifty Peak or Mount Clifty or Clifty — the official name is debatable. Passing drivers wave. Other than the occasional logging truck, it’s a quiet place.

Jacob Francom is the new charter school’s founding principal. He spent the previous 10 years as a district superintendent in Montana. Renovation is expected to start this summer. The 13.5-acre campus includes nine separate buildings that will be repurposed for classroom space and other needs.

In 2025, NICA plans to open its doors to 210 students, drawing K-6 kids from rural areas stretching to the Canadian and Montana borders, south to Lake Pend Oreille. One grade level will be added each year, with full capacity pegged at 390 as a K-12 school. The Bonners Ferry school is the newest ACSI campus.

Its attendance area follows the Highway 95 corridor, through the communities of Bonners Ferry, Moyie Springs, Samuels, Ponderay and Kootenai.

North Idaho Classical Academy’s attendance area follows the Highway 95 corridor, through the communities of Bonners Ferry, Moyie Springs, Samuels, Ponderay and Kootenai.

A year before opening, its waitlist is lengthy, with over 550 intending to enroll. Charters in Idaho are free, public schools that use an annual lottery to determine which students get to enroll. Based on a recent survey, around 70% of those interested are homeschool students reengaging (or for the first time) with public education.

Why is there overwhelming interest?

It’s driven by the classical model’s two key pillars — knowledge and virtue, said Jacob Francom, the school’s founding principal. He previously served 10 years as superintendent for Troy School District in Montana.

“We have a rigorous curriculum and traditional learning with an emphasis on character development. But I think even more than that, there’s a trust that’s already built in with the Hillsdale College” classical education model, Francom said.

Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative teaches moral character and intellectual virtue through its liberal arts and sciences curriculum, with an instructional focus on developing civic virtue. The initiative is an outreach program devoted to the revitalization of public education through the launch and support of classical K-12 charter schools.

Idaho has two affiliated charters. Fruitland’s Treasure Valley Classical Academy is a member school and Avimor’s Idaho Novus Classical Academy is a candidate member. NICA will earn candidate designation with full affiliation to the Hillsdale curriculum.

The charter school campus’ buildings will be updated and remodeled to accommodate up to 390 students.

There are three additional ACSI schools in the organizational phase — two in the Treasure Valley and one in Burley.

Still a full year before kids get to walk along “Liberty Pathway” past “Freedom Pond,” plans are underway to convert aging dorm buildings to classrooms; turn an expansive, 20,000-square-foot lodge into K-4 classrooms and administrative offices; construct an amphitheater, gymnasium and playground.

In accordance with its goal of forming citizens who uphold the ideals of the country’s founding, the campus’ nine buildings sit on 13.5 acres and carry historical names like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. 

“I think that traditional approach is very powerful,” Francom said. “One thing that I found very attractive is the character development. And it’s not just expected of students, but it’s expected of staff members too.”

Each building will be named after important historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Those expectations extend to how students talk, the clothing they wear and the way they interact with adults and peers — a culture of decorum, respect, discipline, joy, studiousness and thoughtful patriotism.

“You see kids coming into schools and they’re just in their pajamas. So how can you be very serious about learning if you’re not even serious about taking care of yourself?” Francom asked.

To fund the purchase next month and upcoming remodel, it’s using a combination of public and private grants and loans. Ultimately, they hope to refinance into a 35-year United States Department of Agriculture loan program. Nearly $6 million could be saved by using the USDA program instead of bonds, Francom estimates.

1972: Academy of the Rockies

Beginning in 1972, the campus was home to the now-defunct Academy of the Rockies, a boarding school combining academics with outdoor survival training and farm work.

It’s reported that owner and director Kevin Cullinane ran the school for 10 years. Students raised their own meat, fruits and vegetables, and produced milk, butter and eggs. They navigated the mountains in the summer and winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, camping and mountaineering.

Between farm chores and meals, two class periods were held each day, one mid-morning and one in the evening. They studied classical literature, like Shakespeare, Tolkein and Sophocles; also expository composition, history of human progress, ethics, logic, science and mathematics.

Tuition cost $4,600 for the nine-month course, designed for high school sophomores interested in the “twin arts of reflective thinking and intelligent daring,” reads a 1973 Rampart College newsletter. 

Cullinane was reportedly a 1967 graduate of Rampart, which emphasizes the ideals of individual autonomy, limited government and freedom of speech. He served in the Marine Corps and was an officer-in-charge of the counter-guerrilla warfare school in Okinawa, Japan.

“Academy of the Rockies was built on the basis of the belief that standards of schooling and of behavior in general have been scaled down to a sub-human level and that it was high time to open a school which could and would do something about it,” Cullinane wrote in 1979.

The school closed in the early 1980s. It was later purchased and reopened as Boulder Creek Academy.

1993: Boulder Creek Academy

Boulder Creek Academy (BCA), owned by CEDU Educational Services, opened its doors in 1993 as a private therapeutic boarding school. The company owned and operated several boarding schools licensed as group homes, wilderness therapy programs and behavior-modification programs.

Four were located around Bonners Ferry: BCA, Rocky Mountain Academy, Northwest Academy and Ascent Wilderness Camp. CEDU went out of business because of lawsuits and regulations. Those lawsuits stemmed from allegations of abuse.

Universal Health Services owned BCA — a children’s residential care and treatment facility — when it closed its doors in 2022, according to the Bonners Ferry Herald. There were 34 students and 63 staff members.

The Ware family — supporters of classical education — acquired the 120-acre property in 2022. NICA then agreed to purchase its 13.5-acre campus for $3.5 million from Paul Ware, providing the organization with a $5 million equity cushion because it was appraised at $8.5 million.

NICA is authorized by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in Boise, the state’s largest authorizer.

The bucolic campus will educate up to 390 students in K-12. The charter school is the third school to open there since 1973.


Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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