A second effort to create a charter school in Wallowa County, this time called the Wallowa Mountain Community School (WMCS), is not only afoot, but is much more organized than the first attempt which failed to gain the approval of the Enterprise School Board early in 2002.
This time around a board of directors has been named and an application for a 501(c) 3 sent into the federal government as a nucleus of students, teachers, parents and community members are building on the foundation laid two years ago.
In an effort to better educate the public on charter schools a series of four successive articles has been drafted to run in consecutive issues of the Chieftain beginning next week.
Charter schools have been in the United States for the past 12 years and since 1999 in Oregon. Forty-one states now have charter schools and there are 44 such schools in Oregon.
Whereas public schools focus on an instructor to student format, charter schools are more inclined to include the environment on equal footing in the teaching process. "Every day is a field trip in the classroom," says WMCS executive director Joe Minato.
The philosophy adopted by the local group (charter schools have the freedom to adopt different philosophies) is not that different from a Montessori school. The learner needs to be at the center of his or her education. Key concepts embracing that philosophy include individual educational plans for each student, self paced/self initiated learning, classes spanning three grade years, a cooperative learning environment, hands on materials, project based education and multi cultural learning.
The president of the local board, Bill Oliver, says that tuition free charter schools are not only for the gifted and special needs learner, but students in the middle as well.
The WMCS board of directors has yet to determine whether it will ask the Enterprise, Joseph or Wallowa school district to sponsor its school. With that idea in mind the WMCS has sent out letters to all school board members at the three school districts as well as administrators informing them of their intentions.
A charter school is a public school that receives funding from the Oregon Department of Education, just like all public schools. For students grades 1-8 the charter school receives 80 percent of the state's annual payment for each student, estimated to be $5,000, with the remaining 20 percent going to the sponsor district. For students 9-12 that percentage changes to 95 percent and five percent. Charter school proponents, with the backing of a local survey done by Green & Christoffersen Marketing, suggest that a charter school would bring home schooled children back into the public school system. Statistics say that there are 150 home schooled families in Wallowa County.
Another possible income source for the sponsoring district could come from the rental of classroom space.
A sponsorship of a charter school by a Wallowa County district will trigger a two-year federal grant of $300,000 for startup money. Myron Kirkpatrick of Wallowa County Business Facilitation has worked out a three year budget and business plan showing where the WMCS would be economically feasible both with and without the $300,000 federal money.
The initial plan is to open a charter school of 35 students grades 1-6.
Proponents plan to expand in numbers and in grades until the charter school is grades 1-12. Based on the theory that children can both learn from and teach each other, the beginning classes would be for grades 1-2-3 and 4-5-6.
One major difference from main stream public schools is that in charter schools only 50 percent of the instructors need to be certified teachers. This opens the doors so that artists, engineers or other qualified persons from the community could go into the classroom as paid instructors.
The surveys done by Green & Christoffersen Marketing indicated an interest in enrolling students in a charter school. If more than 35 students grades 1-6 would want into the first year of operation, according to state law, a lottery would be held to determine who could be enrolled. Siblings of enrolled students would be given priority status in subsequent years.