Middleton charter connects kids to careers and the outdoors

Forge International School’s mission is to prepare students for college and careers using a rigorous, international curriculum.

But it’s a different type of rigor, according to the school’s chief operating and finance officer, Emily Downey.

It’s not “kill and drill,” she said of the Middleton-based charter, which is on target to become one of six free, public K-12 schools in the world that offers a full international baccalaureate curriculum. 

Instead, the school takes students backpacking in Hells Canyon, instructs them through six-month projects and offers multiple diplomas.

Forge offers unique model to rural students

Forge is the only IB school in Canyon County, and serves less than 400 students — some from as far as Fruitland and Emmett. 

As an IB school, Forge is part of a worldwide network of institutions that offer inquiry-based, college preparatory education. Hands-on, integrated learning is built into the school’s model, said Downey.

Teachers of all subjects and grades align their lessons so students can connect what they are learning across disciplines. This, according to Downey, gives students a more well-rounded understanding of every subject.

When the school adds 12th grade, students will be able to graduate with different diplomas, just like they do at Boise’s Sage International. They’ll receive the traditional Idaho diploma along with an IB-specific diploma for their chosen program.

The career-related program (CP) orients the typical IB education toward the career path, and requires students to complete an internship before graduation. The diploma program (DP) is more focused on college credits, and requires students to complete an intensive project. 

Nora Strauch, an educator at Forge, intentionally sought a job in an IB school when her family moved to Idaho after experiencing the model abroad.

“The IB framework is very unique in and of itself,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘We’re gonna dabble in this and dabble in that.’ It’s a real clear framework, and I appreciate that as a teacher.” 

The school’s four-day schedule allows teachers extra time to plan their weeks, and gives students time to work on their projects and internships, according to Downey. 

Staff from sister schools Forge and Sage gathered in Middleton for professional development.

To receive their diploma, students are evaluated at a national level by the IB headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. This, Downey said, sets students apart as they seek higher education.

Forge’s test results are mixed. On one hand, more than 83% of K-3 students read at grade level last year. On the other, only 47.9% reached proficiency in ELA and 31.6% in math on the 2021 ISATs — both lower than the state average. Forge’s ISAT scores are based on grades 3-8 only, since the school did not have 10th grade in 2021.

The school also still has openings in almost all grades, something leaders chalk up to Forge’s system of adding a new grade level each year. Tenth grade was the most recent addition, and has the highest number of openings with around 20 seats left.

Outdoor opportunities help students return to the classroom

Just months after opening in 2019, Forge was rocked by the pandemic, and disruptions continued through the past two years despite the best efforts of staff and administrators. But Forge parent Shellie Fuller says her four kids avoided pandemic learning loss, thanks to dedicated teachers and the unique opportunities the school provides.

School leaders agree, saying Forge’s community-based, experiential learning activities — many of them outdoors — have had an even bigger impact as students transition from virtual to in-person learning.

Forge students as young as fourth grade can join their teachers and classmates on “expeditions,” or outdoor education trips. The school offers scholarships and gear to students who wouldn’t otherwise get to go.

Last year, students and educators went on a three-day backpacking trip through Hells Canyon. The trip allowed students to bond with their teachers and build up their confidence, with a focus on returning to the classroom, said Downey.

Forge students hiked through Hells Canyon last year.

“Their teachers were right there helping them, tying their shoes, picking them up, carrying their backpack for a little while,” she said. “Then when they go back to the classroom and they have to do some really hard things, they’re ready and willing to do it because they know that teacher cares about them.”

Fuller’s son has gone on nearly every expedition offered by Forge, thanks to scholarships.

“It’s just something that we would never be able to provide as a family, but the school does a great job of offering,” Fuller said. 

Last year, Forge’s fifth grade students were invited to Idaho BaseCamp near Ketchum. The school plans to offer this trip again, along with eight other opportunities for other grade levels.

This year, students will be able to:

  • Backpack in the Frank Church Wilderness.
  • Camp at the Oregon Coast.
  • Hike the Dry Creek Trail in the Boise Foothills.
  • Participate in Bogus Basin’s life sports and snow school programs.
  • Camp at the Idaho City Yurts.
  • Backpack in Grand Gulch, Utah.
  • Attend Idaho BaseCamp.
  • Attend the McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS).
Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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