Learning through a prism

New charter school opens in Kenai wit, focus on arts, sciences

Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2004

They came in Sunday best, lugging book bags and lunch boxes. Some hid behind parents' legs; others dragged Mom and Dad along, rushing into the new year.

Children throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District returned to school Tuesday for the beginning of the 2004-05 school year. Like every year, the annual migration was a mix of old and new.

At Sears Elementary School, even the youngest students seemed comfortable returning to the Kenai building. Teachers and staff gathered in the lobby greeting families as they walked through the door. More often than not, though, it was the children doing the greeting, running up to throw their arms around the legs of familiar people.

Then, they wandered off to classrooms to find their desks, unload school supplies and reunite with friends and the world of academia.

Sears is actually home to one of the newest features in the district this year: the Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences. But even the 88 children joining the four charter school classes seemed quite at home. For many, the charter school's cozy classes and themed units are nothing new.

The charter school, which was approved by the school board and state last spring, is a take-off of last year's successful magnet classroom program at Sears. Throughout 2003-04, Sears was home to two unique classrooms, which focused on art and science, respectively. While students in these classes still learned all the standard fare, lessons were based around a central theme and provided a special emphasis on hands-on learning.


M. K. Knudsen gives Kaleidoscope students a tour of the playground before recess Tuesday.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In order to preserve the program through budget cuts, parents and educators got together last year to develop a charter school based on the same philosophies. While somewhat separate, though, the charter school is designed to be a school-within-a-school, working cooperatively with Sears Elementary. In fact, many of the students, if asked what school they attend, hesitate between offering "Sears" or "Kaleidoscope" as answers.

That's part of the point. Planners last year said they wanted to offer children opportunities, but didn't want to the school to become an elitist atmosphere. Enrollment was based on a lottery, open to families throughout the district (though preference was given to those students who already had started the magnet school program). The new school operates within the Sears building, sharing facilities, resources and even some staff.

However, the charter school does have its own principal, budget, curriculum and philosophies.

Like last year's magnet classes, the charter school operates on collaboration between staff members, hands-on activities for students and lessons focused around art and science motifs. All four classes two first-grade rooms and two second- and third-grade multiage rooms share the yearlong theme of "Searching for Treasure," which will lead to quarter-long units on topics such as "Treasures of the Earth" and "Treasures of the Sea." The first unit focuses on the earth, and in the older classes, at least, the first lessons of the year will feature harvest time.

Teachers also rely on best practices and brain research to deliver instruction to students.

For example, first-grade teacher Nancy Lafferty ex-plained, all the classrooms feature pale green wall hangings and curtains. She said research has indicated that such colors are calming, "so (students) can focus on academics."

Likewise, the charter classrooms are filled with live plants both around the room and on students' tables. In the first-grade classes, taught by Lafferty and MK Knudsen, there are lots of pets, and each table also has a small bowl that is home to a fish. Lafferty said the plants and fish are calming and clean the air; plus, they help in the science focus of classes.

In the second- and third-grade multiage classes, taught by Nicole Shelden and Kelli Stroh, soft music often plays in the background and art is a central learning tool. The multiage classes have featured authors and artists, and on Day 1, Shelden's wall featured a Vincent Van Gogh print, while on Stroh's wall hung a print of one of Monet's works.

Already on Tuesday, Shel-den was using art to help teach students the basic rules, shared by both the Kaleidoscope and Sears communities. Each student had a small cut-out of a person, and Shelden pointed out how even the paper dolls were each a little different. Different, she said, is good, and put-downs are not tolerated in either school.

Next door, Stroh took students through morning exercises, explaining to the kids that movement helps their brains work better.

Sharing and teamwork also are big features of the charter school, where students are seated in four-person "learning clubs." School supplies are kept in baskets on each "learning club" table, which Knudsen said helps children learn about sharing and makes the fluid nature of lessons move more smoothly.

It's all a little different from a more traditional public school, but for teachers and students Tuesday, it was first-day jitters and joy as usual.

"I'm so excited," said Shelden, as parents and students filtered into her classroom. "I've been waiting for this day."

One of her students, crying out in the midst of the settling-in din, agreed.

"This is going to be so, so fun!"

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