By RON LARSEN - Journal Staff Writer
LAFAYETTE - When Independent School District No. 88 officials decided to close the elementary school in Lafayette back in the late '90s, residents immediately were concerned that losing the school would result in the town losing an ace in the hole in the battle to attract families, particularly with very young children, to live there.
However, a group of parents quickly banded together to apply for a charter school. Their application was approved by the state Department of Education. Athough the new owner was living upstairs in the school building he had purchased from ISD No. 88, he agreed to lease it to the charter school organization.
Angela Harder, is the lead teacher at the Lafayette Charter School. pictured with her are students from left: Alex Wyttels, Connor Stolt, Ellie Apitz and Morgan Brey.
The charter school focuses on agriculture and technology but traditional subjects are still part of the curriculum.
So, having hired Sheila Howk as lead teacher, the parent group had the school up and running in September 1999, and the school was off to a fast start in being "the little school that can."
"When they opened, they did so with two sites. Their first site was here in Lafayette, and they had just right around 20 kids. Then, the second site was the Hutterite community out at Starland [near Gibbon], and they opened with 36 children at Starland. We still have Starland as our second site, and we provide the K-through-8 education for all of the students out at Starland," Andrea Harder, the school's present lead teacher, explained.
While there have been as many as 125 students enrolled in the Lafayette Charter School system, there are 82 students in K-through-8 and six pre-schoolers this term. Six of the students are receiving instruction at the Starland site, Harder said.
As charter schools are required to have ISD sponsors, ISD No. 88 started out being the school's sponsor; however, the GFW school district now is the school's sponsor.
That's worked out better, logistically, for the Lafayette school because GFW buses transport charter school students to and from school, Harder said.
The Starland site is staffed from the Lafayette site as it's only 15 minutes away, Harder said.
"We send one of our teachers out there, and she does K-through-8 education. As they just have six students right now, she teaches kind of that whole idea of one room. Everybody is in it."
While some may look at the charter school as a private, tuitioned educational facility, it's not, she notes.
"We are a public school so we are totally funded by the state. So, we are tuition-free. The pre-K program isn't funded through the state so that is a tuition-based program that just runs out of our school, but we are a state-funded entity," Harder affirms.
While the state Department of Education obviously requires charter schools to adhere to the same curriculum guidelines as school districts do, there's an interesting wrinkle that's unique to charter schools.
"To be a charter school, you have to have a focus -so the board that started this school chose agriculture and technology. The reason behind agriculture is obviously in the community we are in. It's important and it's prevalent. So, they wanted kids to really realize that agriculture was more than the stereotypical farmer wearing a straw hat, and there's an amazing amount of like careers and things that you can go into that are encompassed by agriculture," Harder explained.
"Then, they also chose technology because in today's day and age, technology is all around us, also. So, we really wanted to put a little importance on having kids who are technologically literate and savvy and know how to work on the computer and how to do some things. Just really to be a little more up to speed as to what's going on with technology," she continued.
"We built the green house, I think, our third year we were in operation so the green house is part of our agriculture curriculum. Starting in February, the kids go out to the green house, and they plant seeds. They raise the seeds from germination all the way to actually being flowers or plants, and in May we have a plant sale that we open up to the [public] that just helps to fund-raise for our green house. It's a fun way for them to get some hands-on experience with horticulture and another aspect of agriculture."
A recent addition to the existing building addresses the issue of physical fitness as it has provided the school with a much-needed gymnasium, as well as some additional classroom space.
With an eye to watching pennies, school staff found another school that was getting rid of its electronic scoreboard so that scoreboard now serves to make the gym "game ready."
In talking about the school's focus areas, Harder is quick to point out the school doesn't overlook the basics of education in doing so.
"We opened as a back to the basics school, meaning our curriculum focuses on math, reading and writing, and really making sure that the kids have the basics of their education covered. We certainly cover all the other areas, like social studies, science, music and art, but we want to make sure that basics, core curricular things are covered really well here at the school," she said.
Harder also believes charter school students are well positioned to compete and prosper when they go on to high school, wherever that might be.
"As kids have transitioned from here to there [to area high schools], we really haven't seen anybody who hasn't been ready for it or been shocked by the difference; anything like that. It's been a nice, smooth transition," she notes.
"They can go to New Ulm or GFW. Some of our kids have chosen to go to, like Minnesota New Country school at Henderson if they like that whole charter school. Open enrollment allows them to go wherever it fits their needs as a student which is nice that they have that choice to find out what's for them and their families."
Another feature Harder likes about the charter school concept is its administrative structure which ties in with staffing, including 10 teachers and five support personnel.
"Being a chartered school just means that really we're a little more flat-management styled so I, as the lead teacher, am kind of like the principal, superintendent all in one. I still teach half-time so I teach 7th and 8th grade, and then I administrate in the afternoon," Harder explained.
"But, I really wouldn't change it ever because it's so fun to be in the classroom. That's what we're here for is to be, you know, with the kids and interacting with them. So, I can't give up that time. It's nice to be in that room with them."
Finally, there's the "corporate" structure, if you will, that holds some advantages for teachers that they wouldn't access in a public school district, and that administrative structure is headed by the "founding board" that made application for the charter, Harder said.
"We run pretty much like a non-profit co-op, if you will. Our school board, right now, is comprised of three parents and four teachers. So, with a normal public school, you wouldn't have teachers on your board," she said. "But, the idea of chartered schools is that we as teachers have ownership. In hopes you would take more pride in what you're doing and just caring more for what you have going on in your own school, having more ownership in it."
Ron Larsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org