Charter school has come a long way
Twelve-year-old Stephanie Henson doesn’t mind the 30-minute ride to school. It doesn’t bother her that she’s separated from her old group of friends or that she’s guaranteed to be the new kid in school when she enters ninth grade.
It’s all worth it, she said, to be in a school where she’s not bullied, where she gets one-on-one attention from her teachers and where her grades already are rising.
Henson lives in Rangely but commutes the 20 miles to attend the Dinosaur Community Charter School.
“It’s a lot better than the Rangely school,” she said. “The teachers are a lot nicer, and they explain things better.”
Henson is quick to smile, though the motion exposes a slightly crooked front tooth. It reminds her of the reason she left her last school. Henson said another student pushed her into a rock wall.
“Sometimes I just felt like I didn’t fit in,” she said. “I fit in a lot better here. This is a thousand hundred kajillion times better than my old school.”
At the Dinosaur Community Charter School, each desk in the fourth- through sixth-grade classroom sports its own computer. The student-to-staff ratio is about three to one, volunteers log more than 200 hours a month, and students say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
For a place that was nearly closed for contract violations, the Dinosaur Community Charter School has come a long way. And officials say it’s not done yet.
Principal Dana Forbes expects the school’s 16-student enrollment to more than double for next year as a large crop of kindergarteners enters and the school expands to include seventh- and eighth-graders.
The Moffat County School District closed the school in 2003 because a declining enrollment made it too expensive to run. In 2004, it opened as a charter school.
Throughout this school year, there have been several occasions when School Board members were concerned about the school’s inability to provide state-mandated services.
That’s changed. Not only was the school able to find the staff needed, the money to pay them became available when the school was awarded a $180,000 grant.
That’s not all that money will buy. By next year, students will be able to grow their own food using a greenhouse and a hydroponics system. It’s Forbes’ intention that the food grown will be used in the children’s school lunches, will be donated to local low-income families and can be sold as both a fund-raiser and a business lesson for the students.
Forbes also plans to install an hydroponics system and a climbing wall in the gymnasium.
Despite the windfall from the grant, the school still has needs. The metal playground equipment looks to be from the original 1960s construction. There’s no grass on the softball or soccer fields and the burnt orange carpet is torn and ripped in many places.
The focus, Forbes said, has been in meeting state requirements and ensuring a quality education — aesthetics are secondary.
The building is still the property of the Moffat County School District, but it likely will change hands next year, Forbes said.
Despite what the building may lack, staff members see only the benefits of small class sizes and the rural school support system.
“It’s an awesome school, that’s why I came here,” Title I teacher Gaila Bell said. Hiring Bell to provide Title I services was one of the school’s last steps in complying with its charter school contract.
Beyond that, Forbes said, she’s a godsend.
Bell grew up in Dinosaur and attended school in Rangely “so I know the system,” she said. “Rangely doesn’t work for all these kids.”
She was teaching in Rangely before accepting the position in Dinosaur. She currently commutes from Rangely, but is working to move to Dinosaur.
“I think we’re making a mistake letting our small rural school die,” she said.
The high school drop-out rate among Dinosaur students is 35 percent higher than the national average. Charter school teachers are sure the school will change that.
“We’re the guarantee that no child will be left behind,” Bell said. “We will make sure that any child within our reach will not be left behind in education.”
The reason Bell believes so strongly is that the charter school provides the opportunity for teachers to work one on one with students. Each student’s strengths and weaknesses are constantly evaluated and teachers are adjusting to meet their individual needs.
Classes are separated into three groups, kindergarten and preschool, first through third grades and fourth through sixth grades.
Karen Lester’s four children are all involved with the charter school. Three are students, and one is a volunteer. The entire family commutes from neighboring Blue Mountain.
“Parents are welcome to come all the time, so I’m here all the time,” she said.
Lester helps out while she’s at the school. She volunteers as an aide and works with students on special projects or lessons they may be struggling with.
She home schooled her children until the charter school opened.
“This is the next best thing to home schooling,” she said.
Edie Jansen, the school’s special education service provider, said the school allows for freedom of thought and for students to be who they are and not be judged.
“We’re such a team here,” she said.
That team extends to include the community. One parent drives in from Rangely once a week to teach music. A grandparent volunteers to teach students art, another comes in every day to work as the school’s secretary and Forbes’ 18-year-old son visits the school to read to students.
The lunch lady works part-time cooking and doing dishes and then volunteers the rest of her day cleaning the school or helping in the classroom.
Between parents, grandparents and community members, the school charts more than 200 volunteer hours a month.
Sixth-grader Chris Wells is new to the school. He said having a DVD player in the car makes his commute from Vernal at little easier the way switching schools has made learning easier.
Enrolling at the Dinosaur charter school has allowed Wells to go from a failing student — four “Fs” on his last report card — to having “As” and “Bs” and “I think one ‘D.'”
“It’s really cool here,” he said.
After he finishes the grades the charter school can offer, he’ll ask to be home schooled as opposed to returning to the traditional classroom where “too many people” are distracting.
Forbes doesn’t expect this first crop of students to have high test scores or stellar grades. What he does expect is for Colorado Student Assessment Program testing to create a baseline that can be used to compare students’ performance over the course of a year.
And he fully expects that patience to bear fruit.
“Rangely’s loss is our gain,” is what Forbes wrote on Henson’s report card.
And the school district’s decision to close a dying school has been a gain for a town that had to be backed into a wall to prove it would do whatever it took to ensure it had a school.
And will do what ever it takes to make that school successful, Forbes said.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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