“There has to be a spirit of collaboration – and there does not appear to be one”
The owners of Orsch, Gunnison’s One Room School House, were testing the waters in the Gunnison Watershed RE1J school district to see if a charter option is right for the district.
Orsch founders Jackie and Ashley Burt attended a work session of the RE1J school board Monday, February 25 to discuss the possibility of creating a charter based on the school Jackie started in Gunnison’s Webster Hall as a way of bringing Jackie’s vision full circle by providing public school students with alternative education opportunities.
The idea was met with a lukewarm response from the school board and a cadre of district teachers who attended the work session. After considering the district’s response to their proposal, the Burts decided this isn’t the best time to pursue a charter.
“We will be withdrawing from the process because as we stated up-front, there has to be a spirit of collaboration – and there does not appear to be one,” they said after the meeting.
Since the school got its start as a summer program for children’s kindergarten through sixth grade, Orsch has grown to accommodate 78 students and eight full-time and four part-time faculty. The program is still offered in a multi-age setting where students progress through coursework on their own initiative, not within a grade level structure.
“Students very much choose their own pace. They go as fast and as far as they like and they know what options they have when they get there,” Jackie told the board at the work session.
“There’s a large element of creativity. There’s a large element of community … it’s a highly individualized and differentiated approach … so those kids are used to being in charge of their learning and communicating with their teachers what is and is not working.”
Jackie was a teacher for gifted and talented students at Gunnison Elementary School (GES) until she left prior to starting Orsch as a full-time alternative school in 2009. Although she presented her idea of a multi-age educational program to the board before striking out on her own, the budget then, not unlike now, was tight and the district was already funding a gifted and talented program.
“It was never our intention to be in competition with the district,” Ashley told the board at the work session. “Jackie and I together and individually have a very strong sense of commitment to public education. This idea was born within the public district. It’s only possible incarnation was private so we took that route, but not by choice. So to some degree, from our perspective, it’s coming full circle.”
With the success of the school, as evidenced by its growing numbers, and the base of support they’ve created at Orsch, the Burts felt it was a good time to investigate a public option. “Everything we’ve invested in this we’re willing to give to the district,” Jackie said.
“One of our strong resistances to going private up front was that we didn’t want to exclude anybody,” Ashley told the board. “And it’s really been an ongoing struggle for us to maintain inclusion at the level we’d like to keep it.”
Becoming a charter institution would do away with Orsch’s current $4,800 annual tuition and make it available to any student in the district, although the total number of students allowed to attend would be limited.
In Colorado, a charter school is considered to be a public school operating as a “semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district,” according to the Colorado Department of Education. Getting a charter isn’t always easy. There’s an application process and the support of the school board that has to be gained.
But there are obvious benefits to the district, too. If the administrators of Orsch sign on as a charter, its students would become Gunnison RE1J district students and the state would fund the district accordingly, at about $6,500 per pupil. Ashley pointed out that Orsch’s student body constituted almost a half-million dollars in annual state funding that isn’t coming to Gunnison Valley schools right now.
Ashley told the school board about some of the benefits the district might realize if a charter contract should be reached between Orsch and the district, including the possibility of putting “existing facilities or existing land to beneficial economic use … leasing that back to the charter school and capturing some of those per pupil dollars directly for RE1J’s budget.”
A less appealing aspect of the charter, perhaps for both Orsch students and the district, is the fact that all district students are required to submit to a state-approved core curriculum and take all of the obligatory standardized tests. It’s not something Orsch students, who might take a few weeks to move through a grade’s worth of material in one subject and a year to finish an equivalent amount of material in another subject, would be familiar with.
But it’s not something the Burts are concerned about, either. Jackie told the board there were several students she knew of who had moved from Orsch into the public school system without trouble, and one instance of a student who struggled to adapt.
Ashley told them, “There will have to be concessions [on Orsch’s part] with regard to testing and CSAP and a whole host of things that surround that. We understand that. But the core of how you learn it can be different.”
One of the purposes of the statutes guiding charter contracts is to protect school districts from floundering private institutions who would rather saddle the public with debt than go under. Ashley assured the board that wasn’t the case with Orsch. “Orsch LLC will continue to operate as a private entity and although it won’t be in the business of directly educating students anymore it will continue writing, speaking and developing educational tools.”
Until seeing the district’s response to the idea of an Orsch charter, the proposal was for Jackie to move into the district, along with the current students, to provide a fluid translation of the Orsch culture, while the private school’s teachers would have to apply to be hired by the district.
“As we all know, there are a lot of people who want to get a job here,” one of more than a dozen school district teachers in attendance said.
As students moved on or moved out, those positions would become available, ideally, in a lottery situation, Jackie said. But maintaining some consistency in the school would have been important, Ashley said, to provide some “continuity of education for the kids that are already enrolled and have been in this environment for the last four years.”
Several other district employees had concerns related to how the Orsch system would fit in the district and what tools they had available to assess student needs.
Along with the charter school application, the Burts would have had to provide information on budget, facilities, curriculum, transportation, food service and a bevy of other things that need to be considered before a charter could be considered by the school board.
Board member Bill Powell raised his concerns about the Burts’ proposal, saying he had a hard time understanding what benefit the school district would get from bringing Orsch into the fold, as well as having broader concerns about the nuts and bolts of making the alternative method work in the existing framework.
“I’m having a difficult time figuring out how we can meet state standards with the instruments the state defines for us,” Powell said. “We don’t have local control anymore. It’s driven by state and federal mandates … so to try to collaborate, integrate, whatever you call it, any entity which has a philosophy of ‘latching on’ [to course material] … I don’t know how we measure that.”
Prior to Monday’s meeting, the window for charter applications, as recommended by the state, was from August through October, however the school board could adjust that if they had wanted to. But that window may have been closed.
“I’m not here to promise that our program is going to be better than something else,” Jackie told the board. “We are what we are. We do what we do and lots of parents like it.”