Kalispell School District Moves Forward with Four Charter School Proposals

If approved by the state Board of Public Education, the Kalispell School Board will vote on whether or not to open four “school-within-a-school” charter programs in the district

By Denali Sagner
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) will submit four proposals to the Montana Board of Public Education (BPE) to create public charter school programs within the district.

KPS administrators at a Tuesday night school board meeting presented four distinct proposals for public charter “schools-within-a-school.” The four distinct proposals included a career-focused charter school within Flathead High School; a personalized learning charter school within Glacier High School; a community-based, flexible learning charter school at Elrod and Russell elementary schools; and an outdoors-focused charter school at Kalispell Middle School.

According to administrators, the four programs were designed with the goal of expanding educational offerings for existing KPS students, drawing in homeschool and out-of-district students and bringing additional funding to the district, which saw the defeat of four school levies last month. 

“The spirit of the charter bill really asks us to come up with ideas, find needs that we’re not really addressing in our school system,” Flathead High School Principal Michele Paine said.

In two votes, the school board approved district administrators’ requests to submit all four individual applications to the state, which BPE will either approve or deny.

BPE will schedule an interview with each applicant and will take public comment on each proposal at its Nov. 15-17 meeting. Final approval of each application will take place at the Jan. 18-19, 2024 BPE meeting.

On its website, BPE states that “submitting a public charter school application does not guarantee that a public charter school contract will be granted” and that an application may be rejected if it fails to adhere to any requirement or puts forth a proposal that is “not strong enough to guarantee a successful public charter school implementation.”

If approved by BPE, the Kalispell School Board will offer a final decision on whether or not to open the charter programs within KPS.

The following charter school applications will be submitted by KPS:

Flathead PACE Academy  

Flathead PACE Academy (Personalized Academic & Career Exploration) is a career-focused high school charter program that will serve students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades and will be located inside Flathead High School.

According to the application that will be submitted to BPE, the school would provide “relevant career preparatory education that better connects our students with potential careers in the Flathead Valley” and would “have all students graduate with an education that enables a smooth transition to their next step in life.”

Students at Flathead PACE Academy would take their core courses — English, math, science and social studies — in a flexible, self-paced manner during periods three, four, five and six. Curriculum units would be “flexibly delivered” through in-person instruction, Google Classroom, student Chromebooks and hotspots and teacher-created instructional videos. According to the application, students would be able to have “as much or as little direct instruction as needed.”

At the core of the PACE Academy concept, Paine said, is a “career focus.” Students would take a course called “Career Exploration,” where they would learn “personal and professional skills and experience work-based learning in a wide range of settings.” Students would also complete internships through local employers, which Paine described as a continuation of the district’s lauded work-based learning program, during the morning and late afternoon periods.

The charter school would be staffed by current Flathead High School teachers and paraprofessionals, with the exception of a career coordinator, who would be hired at a salary of $80,000. Aside from the $80,000 career coordinator salary, the district does not expect any outside costs. If the district were to reach a minimum 41-student enrollment, it would receive a basic entitlement from the state of $274,786.

Administrators told the school board that they would be able to pay existing KPS staff who participate in the charter school out of the additional entitlement, freeing up money in the district’s limited general fund.

KPS administrators presented the charter proposals as a way to attract out-of-district and homeschool students, which could increase the per-student funding KPS receives from the state. Montana public schools receive $8,075 per full-time middle and high school student (seventh through 12th grade) and $6,307 per full-time elementary school student (kindergarten through sixth grade).

KPS Assistant Superintendent Matt Jensen said that the district is “trying to fill that niche of what else is out there that could be delivered to our community for students outside of our system.”

Regarding Flathead PACE Academy, trustees expressed concerns that the program would funnel students into careers at the expense of core learning and would not add anything that the district is not already offering.

Trustee Ursula Wilde said that while the program might suit some hands-on careers well, such as welding or woodworking, that it might not work for students who want to enter other careers, such as writing or healthcare.

Administrators said that the program would be open to any student.

In the only public comment made during the meeting, one parent delivered an impassioned rebuke of the charter school proposals, saying that the district is lowering the bar to “the bare minimum” of educational standards and is pushing students into careers rather than encouraging them to engage with traditional subjects. The parent said that the point of education is not to train children for local businesses, and that “we’ve been dumbing down education for 50 years.” The parent also said that internships should be paid and that unpaid internships “exploit students.”

Rising Wolf Charter School

Housed in Glacier High School, Rising Wolf Charter School would provide ninth through 12th graders with “flexible scheduling for students who want something different than the traditional school schedule” and “more personalized learning opportunities.”

Glacier High School Assistant Principal Alan Stanfield presented the application for Rising Wolf Charter School, a model he said is based off of the block scheduling system used at the University of Montana Western in Dillon.

In the charter school, each student would have an “Individual Learning Plan” that would, according to the charter application, “give them voice and choice with their learning environment.” Instead of taking seven classes per day for an entire semester, students in the charter program would be able to take one class for three hours per day over 24 days, allowing them to experience an intensive study of one topic and complete a credit in roughly one month. Rather than taking chemistry, algebra and English every day for the entire academic year, Stanfield explained, students would be able to complete their chemistry credit in 24 days, then move onto their algebra credit, and then their English credit, for example.

While the block schedule sits at the core of Rising Wolf Charter School, students would be able to opt in and out of the model throughout the school day. Charter school students could, for example, take their core classes in the block schedule while remaining in choir and physical education in the regular Glacier High School model. Students would be able to opt into a morning block, an afternoon block, or both.

“The instructional design of our blocking schedule will allow students more immersive experiential learning opportunities and give them multiple options of their choice on how they show mastery of the course material,” the application reads. “They will also be part of a unique cohort of students, where the learning environment fosters collaboration and teamwork.”

While some trustees questioned whether or not students would be able to focus during a 2.5-hour block, Stanfield said that limiting transitions and distractions can actually deepen learning, especially for children with learning disabilities.

“I really think that this is what charter schools are for,” Trustee Rebecca Linden said, expressing support for the program.

Like Flathead PACE Academy, Rising Wolf Charter would be eligible for a $274,786 base entitlement from the state should it reach a minimum enrollment of 41 students. There would be no additional costs associated with Rising Wolf Charter, as it would use Glacier High School staff and facilities, Stanfield said.

By using the additional funding from the state to pay Glacier High School teachers to teach in the charter school, Stanfield said the school hopes to “protect” five or six teaching slots, reflecting ongoing budgetary concerns the district is experiencing.

For both Flathead PACE Academy and Rising Wolf Charter, if 41 students do not enroll in the program, KPS would not receive the basic entitlement from the state. Stanfield said that if they do not reach the threshold, they would not run Rising Wolf Charter that year, and would try again in the next academic year.

Kalispell Community Partnerships Charter

The Kalispell Community Partnerships Charter will offer an “a-la-carte menu” to elementary school parents who want to opt in and out of traditional public school offerings, Jensen, who presented the elementary charter proposal with Elrod Elementary School Principal Jeff Hornby, told trustees. Primarily, the program would be designed to attract private school and homeschool families to KPS who may have stayed out of the public schools due to a lack of flexibility.

In the elementary charter program, students would have three blocks per day: one block for reading, writing and art; one block for math, science and social studies; and one block for special classes. Students would also participate in a weekly “community partnership” activity where they would engage with local businesses and agencies for off-site learning.

According to the application and presentation by administrators, parents would be able to choose a combination of in-person instruction, homeschooling and online instruction for their child at their discretion.

Hornby said the program would be “flexible to be whatever the parent wants.”

If approved, the district plans to host the kindergarten through second/third grade program at Elrod Elementary School and the third through fifth grade program at Russell Elementary School. One goal of the program, administrators said, is to allow students to move flexibly through grade levels, rather than be limited by the traditional grade level structure.

Administrators and trustees expressed skepticism about both the finances and operations of the elementary charter school program.

Rather than the high school charters, which require schools to recruit a minimum of 41 students, elementary school charters require a minimum of 71 full-time students in order for a school district to receive a basic entitlement. Additionally, while high school charters can receive an entitlement of $274,786, elementary charters can only receive $58,963. The district expects to incur no additional costs given the “school-within-a-school model.”

Reaching the minimum enrollment of 71 full-time students may present challenges, Jensen said, especially given the flexibility in the program that encourages families to enroll their children part-time.

Trustee Wilde said that while she understands the financial incentives for opening a charter school, she is concerned about giving parents an opportunity to take a “piecemeal” approach to public education.

“We have goals and standards that our teachers are used to striving for and that they’re used to seeing,” she said. “I do worry that the piecemeal part of it could potentially undermine that overall vision.”

Jensen said that offering a flexible schedule would attract out-of-district parents who might be pushed away otherwise, which could be an overall benefit to the district.

Wilde also expressed concerns that students who move through the flexible grade level model at Kalispell Community Partnerships Charter would struggle to reenter into the traditional model at Kalispell Middle School. 

Administrators agreed that it would be challenging to help those children transition back into the traditional school model.

Rocky Mountain Academy

Rocky Mountain Academy, a sixth through eighth grade charter school housed in Kalispell Middle School, would serve students by offering a combination of small group core classes, remote instruction and community engagement, largely through outdoor recreation.

According to the district’s charter school application, Rocky Mountain Academy would “help all students grow into college ready, exemplary citizens by combining academic mastery with personal empowerment and outdoor pursuits to drive lifelong success.”

Jensen said that students at the charter school would participate in outdoor education that is based around the changing seasons. In the fall, for example, Jensen said students could partake in hunter’s education training.

“They want to make real connections to our natural environment,” Jensen said, adding that there’s “a lot of creativity here.”

In the application, KPS administrators wrote that the charter school program would focus on a combination of project-based learning, extended learning opportunities and job shadowing. With the combined curriculum model, the district hopes to “prepare students for their high school curriculum, college and career exploration,” teach them “to work collaboratively, think critically, and solve problems” and improve their academic outcomes.

If the district is able to enroll 21 full-time students, it would be eligible for a basic entitlement of $117,928. Like the elementary school proposal, the district expects to incur no additional costs given the “school-within-a-school model.”

Though they approved the program, trustees expressed concerns that the outdoors element of Rocky Mountain Academy did not seem to be fully fleshed out in the proposal. Administrators told trustees repeatedly throughout the meeting that due to the short application window, the proposals are preliminary and will need to be developed further during the application process.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story indicated that the Kalispell School Board voted unanimously to approve the charter school proposals. Trustee Lloyd Bondy, who is a high school trustee, voted against approving the charter school proposals.

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