Quite a clutch of public officials were in town last week to take advantage of an opportunity to show their support for choice in public education. The occasion was the opening of Sandpoint Charter School‘s new, soon-to-be LEED-certified high school building. Idaho Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna handled the giant scissors to cut the ribbon. Also on hand were state legislators Shawn Keough and George Eskridge, as well as representatives from the offices Idaho’s U.S. Representative Walt Minnick and U.S. Senator Mike Crapo.
Charter schools are emphatically public schools, open to any student, no tuition required, but they’re free of some of the bureaucratic requirements of other public schools. Many around the country are somewhat controversial, in part because huge numbers of them are operated by corporations that make a profit off the limited (often currently falling) dollars made available through state school funding.
Sandpoint’s charter school, in contrast, is the product of a grass-roots movement of hard-working volunteers who wrote a charter and got the school up and running in the fall of 2001. It opened as a middle school in a building that had housed a local utility, and then expanded, of necessity, into the classrooms of a nearby house of worship—always a dicey undertaking in a country where every effort is made to prevent the entanglement of church and state.
Thanks to a rural development loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the school was ultimately able to purchase and remodel an industrial building for the use of its sixth- through eighth-graders. And as those youngsters grew up, they and their families began searching for alternatives as they continued on to high school. Hence the new school was born, again thanks to an immense amount of volunteer effort.
The new building, funded with another USDA rural development loan as well as a grants from the J. A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and the USDA, is a significant departure from the style of most other schools, private or public. A giant common room dominates the 20,000 square foot structure (a third of which remains unfinished, as funds have yet to be found to complete it). Smaller classrooms will be used only for lectures and conferences; it is expected that most learning will continue to occur outside the classrooms, as students do research online or work on projects in the commons.
CTA Architects, the same group that designed the U.S. Forest Service building that celebrated its opening a few blocks away just two days before, worked with students and faculty to come up with an energy efficient design that would fit this “hands-on, project-based” approach to education. The structure is intended to be LEED silver certified. Contributing to its efficiency are giant south-facing windows that will help to heat it. An eight-inch cement floor will soak up and store that heat in the winter, when the sun is low, and stay cool in the summer, when the sun is high and won’t reach under the overhang over the windows. In addition, a natural wetland behind the school provides for on-site storm water management (and also serves as a handy biology lab).