TWIN FALLS — From the outside, Acorn Learning Center looks like an old-time schoolhouse, with red bricks and an American flag.
Inside, huge rooms allow children plenty of space to learn, and there’s room to play in a grassy backyard.
The private, nonprofit school in Twin Falls has a student body of about 75 from preschool through fifth-grade.
A bulletin board in the school entryway displays a paper cutout of a thermometer, with a sign: “We are Moving.”
It shows the school’s progress toward raising $50,000. Two sign-up sheets encourage parents to help with packing and moving.
After 30 years in its current building on Filer Avenue East, Acorn Learning Center is preparing to move to a new facility this summer.
The school, which launched in 1982, is working to raise money by May 26 to cover moving and renovation costs. So far, it has about $13,000 in hand.
Three parent groups are leading fundraising teams. If the school can’t raise enough money, it will likely take out a loan.
The $50,000 amount is on the high end, board chairwoman Heidi Campbell said. If the school receives donated materials or sweat equity, it won’t have to raise as much.
The school leases its current building from a Washington-based church. “They needed to liquidate funds,” Campbell said, so they put the property on the market.
It sold in summer 2015. One contingency with the sale: The new owner, a different church, must honor the lease with the school, which ends this summer.
Initially, Acorn Learning Center had a plan with Twin Falls First Presbyterian Church to lease a basement that wasn’t being used much, Campbell said.
But there were fire code issues and project bids came in too high for either group to address.
School officials went back to the drawing board a couple of months ago.
Now, they’re planning to pursue a long-term lease for a three-story building on Eastland Drive, across from Vera C. O’Leary Middle School.
“We’re really excited about it,” Campbell said.
Renovation work will include adding an alarm system, reconfiguring bathrooms, ramps and railings to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and knocking down walls to ensure there are large, open classrooms.
The project goes to the Twin Falls Planning and Zoning Commission for consideration May 23.
and hands-on learning
Campbell, who has a son in fourth grade and a daughter in second grade, visited Acorn Learning Center for the first time when she was deciding where her son would attend kindergarten.
The school doesn’t have any religious affiliation. “As a parent, that was really important to me,” Campbell said, so her children feel accepted.
The small class sizes and individualized attention were also selling points, she said.
Before enrolling her son, Campbell sat in on kindergarten classes. She watched students do math by sorting plastic teddy bears by color and creating bar graphs.
Campbell — who’s associate dean of science, technology, engineering and math at the College of Southern Idaho — thought, “there are kids who are really eating this up.” Plus, “they were all being successful at an individualized level.”
The school’s curriculum includes science lessons every day; reading, writing and math through real-world experiences; sports such as skiing, swimming, golfing and rock climbing; weekly art and music classes; community field trips and a large trip each year for older students to either Boise or Yellowstone National Park.
The preschool program accommodates a total of 44 children. The classroom is what used to be the church’s sanctuary. Art easels are set up, covered in paint splatters.
Also on the school’s first floor, 10 kindergartners were sitting at their desks Wednesday working on painting.
In a nearby room, soil-filled colorful plastic pots were lined up on a windowsill, where students are growing plants.
Downstairs, two giant rooms house about 20 elementary schoolers. At some desks, students use balance balls instead of a regular classroom chair.
On Wednesday, fourth and fifth-graders were using a classroom kitchen to prepare a hot lunch for their younger classmates as a fundraiser to pay for an upcoming school trip to Boise.
In their classroom, there’s a piano used every morning when children sing. They also participate in young author nights and theater activities.
Acorn Learning Center has four teachers, plus classroom aides. And active parent volunteers help children with needs such as reading help and art projects.
The school’s history
Chris Mannen and three other parents founded Acorn Learning Center.
Mannen’s sons were attending preschool at Horizon Learning Center in Twin Falls, which was housed in the basement of St. Edward’s Catholic School.
The learning center ran into trouble paying bills and closed its doors, she said. But parents created a new school instead.
Acorn Learning Center operated in the Catholic school’s basement for its first three years.
Then, it moved when the Catholic church wanted to reopen its own school. It bounced among different churches until moving into in its current building.
Mannen is an elementary school teacher at Acorn Learning Center. Years before that, she taught in Colorado and Kimberly, and enjoyed her teaching jobs.
But with Acorn, “I was attracted to the school because of the philosophy of lots of small classes and hands-on learning,” she said.
And it won’t be easy saying goodbye to the school building. “This has been our home for so long,” Mannen said.
The school plans to hold an alumni event — but hasn’t set a date yet — to let people say goodbye to the building where they spent their earliest school years.