TWIN FALLS — Whether it’s smaller class sizes, the opportunity to play an instrument in a school orchestra or the chance to learn outdoors, parents have many reasons for choosing a charter school for their children.
Open enrollment happens over the next two months for south-central Idaho’s four charter schools. Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls, Heritage Academy in Jerome, North Valley Academy in Gooding and Syringa Mountain School in Hailey are public, tuition-free schools and are open to all students.
They have the flexibility to offer innovative programs. But they still receive state and federal funding, and have to adhere to regular public school requirements, including standardized testing. Once prospective charter school families turn in applications, openings at each school will be filled this spring through a lottery system.
Some people nationwide oppose charter schools, though, and say they draw students and money away from traditional public schools instead of helping to improve them.
So how do parents weigh the decision of which school to choose for their child? What can they expect at a charter school? Meet three local families who’ve been through it:
School: Heritage Academy (Jerome)
About the school: Heritage Academy, which opened in 2011, has fewer than 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grades. It offers full-day kindergarten, and a free breakfast and lunch program for all students.
Their story: It’s the first year Ruth Ann Harker’s two youngest children — a 12-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl — have attended Heritage Academy.
Harker has four children and she previously homeschooled them. The family lives two-and-a-half miles west of Jerome.
Her 18 and 12-year-old boys both struggle with learning issues, she said. For her 12-year-old, “he needed more than what I could give him.”
Harker talked with different schools to determine what would be the best fit for him — and her daughter, too.
This spring, she was driving past Heritage Academy and decided to come into the school office. “They immediately sat down with me, even though I didn’t have an appointment,” Harker said.
She visited with school superintendent Christine Ivie for two hours. The staff offered to let her children sit in on a class.
After that experience, Harker decided to enroll her son and daughter.
During a phone interview Tuesday, she started crying. “I’ve seen my kids struggle so hard,” she said. But now, she said she sees them excelling, loving school and they come home smiling.
Harker said she likes the small class sizes. Her daughter struggles with math, and her teacher works with her one-on-one.
Harker said her son learns best through hands-on activities. School staff suggested he’d do better in a different science class and moved him to where he’d excel.
School: Syringa Mountain School (Hailey)
About the school: Syringa Mountain School, which opened in 2014, has fewer than 150 students in kindergarten through sixth grades. In the fall, it will add seventh grade.
The public Waldorf school has a nature-oriented approach that de-emphasizes technology. Children learn through methods such as storytelling, music and hands-on projects.
Their story: After seven years away from the Wood River Valley — in Portland, Ore., and one year abroad — Jamie Truppi and her husband decided to move back when their son was a year old.
Once the family settled in Bellevue, they weren’t sure what type of school to seek for their son.
Truppi wanted him to grow up outside playing in the dirt and self-directing based on his interests. “As it turns out, that turned out to be a lot of Waldorf preschools,” she said.
Her son attended Sweet Clover School, a Waldorf-inspired preschool in Hailey, for two years.
“It totally shifted my mindset about school in general,” she said. It was a chance to “flourish based on their own developmental learning, rather than what a government says is right.”
When looking into kindergarten options, Truppi felt strongly about developing her son’s brain capacity through exposure to world languages and she was considering dual immersion through the Blaine County School District.
“I felt really conflicted,” she said.
Truppi said her son is very bright and was speaking French with her when he was 2 years old. But after visiting Syringa Mountain School, she knew it was the right place for him.
She especially likes the focus on arts, hands-on work and “developing inner character,” she said.
Truppi’s son is in kindergarten this school year. She also has a daughter, who turns three next month.
“I’m grateful to land into a community of like-minded parents who didn’t want their kids to have too much structure,” Truppi said. “We wanted our kids to learn on their own just by exploring their environment.”
Syringa isn’t a “super hippy” environment where it’s a free-for-all, Truppi said. The school is very structured, “but in a free-flowing way that gently nudges children in a direction they’re already going.”
Truppi said she has seen tremendous growth this school year in her son.
The vast majority of Syringa parents are in professional careers, she said, and they’re a close-knit group who share the same ideals and are involved in keeping the school running.
“We’re not just a bunch of hat-making hippies,” she said. “Even if we are, that’s OK.”
School: Xavier Charter School (Twin Falls)
About the school: Xavier Charter School, which opened in 2007, has more than 700 students in kindergarten through 12th grades.
The school is known for its rigorous academics and high test scores. It uses a classical model of education with an emphasis on fine arts, including music, theater, dance and visual arts.
Their story: All four of the Albrecht children have attended Xavier, beginning when the school opened more than a decade ago.
Now, the youngest child is a senior in high school. His older siblings are 20, 22 and 24 years old.
“We’ve been involved since day one,” father Steven Albrecht said. “Our kids seemed like they were a little bored in the normal school system and we wanted them to be a little more challenged than they were.”
Albrecht and his wife heard about Xavier opening and started looking into it. The Twin Falls parents liked the sound of more rigorous academics and thought it may be a good fit for their children.
“We liked what their ideas were with the arts and things like that,” he said. “It was all a plus.”
Over the years, “we’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything we’ve seen at the school,” Albrecht said. Among his four children, they were involved in just about every activity at Xavier.
There are high expectations for students, he said. “For us, we’re grateful for the challenge of the classroom.”