You are on page 1of 4

The Upper Carmen Charter School Carmen, Idaho By Terry Ryan The Upper Carmen Charter School is one

e of Americas remotest public schools. The school operates in the shadows of the Bitterroot Mountain range in eastern Idaho. Missoula, Montana, is the closest big city to Carmen, and it is more than a two and a half hour drive along some of the nations windiest roads. Upper Carmen serves 86 students in grades kindergarten through eight, and it is not uncommon for its students like other kids across the state to travel 25 or 30 miles each morning and afternoon to attend classes. The community of Carmen had a one-room public school of its own in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but saw that school consolidate with the neighboring Salmon school district in a wave of school consolidations in the 1950s. Taking advantage of Idahos 1997 charter school law, the Upper Carmen Charter School opened in 2005 as a K-3 charter school. It added grades four through five in 2008, and grades six to eight in 2010. The school is capped at 90 students and has a wait list of about 40 children. In 2012-13 the school was rated a stellar five out of five stars by the Idaho Department of Education school rating system. In fact, Upper Carmen was ranked 57 out of approximately 700 Idaho schools by the state this past year.

The Upper Carmen Charter School

The school is the creation of the wife and husband education team of Sue and Jim Smith, and there is surely no better couple in Idaho equipped to launch a charter school in a remote rural community than those two. Sue is a master educator with degrees in elementary education and early childhood education and certificates in special education and school administration. Over two decades she taught in a private and public school, and found time to design the reading curriculum that is now used by the 1

Carmen charter school. Her goal for every entering kindergartener is to have them successfully reading by Thanksgiving of their first year in the school. And, she understands what a daunting goal this is because as a child she had severe dyslexia and her family struggled to help her become a competent reader. Such struggles, no doubt, made her a passionate educator and expert reading instructor. Her husband Jim is a retired veteran school administrator who ended his career as Deputy Superintendent in charge of finance at the Idaho Department of Education. The board of trustees assembled by the Smiths include local community leaders and area ranchers. One board members resume in the charter school application read rancher 1971-2004. But added, Earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering, with electoral honors, also being a national merit scholar, and presidential scholarI was also Honorary Vice-President of Phi Kappa Phi for having the highest grade point average in my graduating class. Such people are the sorts of role models the Smiths want for their students. Despite the Smiths expertise and credentials, and that of their board members, the Salmon Public School district did not want to issue a charter school agreement for the school. According to Mrs. Smith, starting the school was a long fight and involved overcoming a number of barriers along the way. Even now many in the Salmon School district see the charter school as taking their kids and their money. But, the Smiths and their school community persisted because they felt too many children needed a school choice that better met their needs and that of their community. The Smiths, and many of their parents, worried about the demise of opportunity for the areas children. In the past young people could make a career in three industries mining, timber and ranching. But today, Mrs. Smith says, ranching is the only industry left.

Children Learning at the Carmen Charter School

Education is what will sustain their community and as the Smiths see it why shouldnt they and their neighbors run the local school. According to Mrs. Smith, the community here functions as a society. We do the funerals, the weddings, the births, and why shouldnt we also educate our children?

If the children are educated too well wont they end up leaving the area for better opportunities and jobs elsewhere? When asked that question, Mrs. Smith responded that the older generation has the responsibility to educate its children to the highest level possible so that they have the power to make decisions about their future. Besides, like the rancher on the board who also received his degree in chemical engineering, Mrs. Smith believes some of the children who leave for opportunities elsewhere will have a career and then come home because the lifestyle is so unique. Making small schools work, especially in a remote rural community, is daunting. Some in the charter world argue that schools with fewer than 300 or 400 students simply cant work. There are scads of stories of charters around the country closing because their enrollments were too small to meet the costs of running a school. But, the Upper Carmen Charter School is small by design. In fact, Mrs. Smith resists the idea of adding high school grades in part because, you have to keep small enough so as not to lose what you have. The school employs 5.75 teachers and 2.25 aides. Every school employee multitasks. Teachers not only teach but also serve lunch, clean the school, and do whatever else it takes to make the school work. Mrs. Smith is not only the school principal but also teaches a full load of reading classes for K-3 students. Jim Smith runs the school operations finance, data entry, purchasing, grant writing, managing the schools three buses, etc. as a volunteer. Or, as he says, I work my own hours.

Carmen School Founder and Leader Sue Smith

Because of excellent planning, some generous external support, and fortuitous timing the school has few bills beyond paying staff and keeping the lights on. While many charters in America, both rural and urban, struggle with facility costs the collection of buildings housing the Upper Carmen Charter School are paid off. The building that houses the K-3 program was built by the local community after the tragic death of two of the Smiths children. The two modular classrooms that house the sixth, seventh and eighth graders were bought used from a local school district for $50,000. And, the newest building that houses the 4th and 5th graders was built using a $100,000 grant from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation. The school was also a recipient of a $450,000 one-time federal start-up grant and has received grant support from the New York-based Steele-Reese Foundation. 3

The one-time federal start-up dollars and the Steele-Reese Foundation dollars were used to equip the school with state of the art computers and laptops, a fantastic library, and a myriad of learning materials and tools that are all well-aligned to the schools curriculum. All students have access to a well-equipped music lab. There is little time wasted during the day. Instruction at the school is highly personalized and focused. The classrooms are divided into three groups of about 30 students each in K-3, 4-5 and 6-8. Within each classroom students can be seen receiving direct instruction, using computer-based instruction, or working on their own. The school utilizes a wide-range of computer-based learning programs in both ELA and in mathematics, and they are expected to do a lot of reading and writing while both in school and out. Their work is shared widely with the larger community through public performances and exhibitions, including annual performances at the county fair. As in all schools teacher quality is a key driver of student success. The Smiths have had to develop their own talent and several of the teachers began as student aids in the school. Or as Jim Smith said, it is hard to recruit teachers to a school where they are expected to not only teach a full load but also help with cleaning the buildings and tending to whatever else pops up during the day. The teachers have roots in the local community and have family connections to the school and its children. One teacher shared, I went off to college, worked in Ft. Wayne, Indiana for a few years, and then decided with my wife it was time to go back home and work to make a difference in my community . Every teacher is highly-qualified, even though Jim Smith doesnt think that designation matters much in terms of whether they really know how to teach. Three of the teachers are special education certified as well. The school does not take federal dollars for special education students or for needy students, but it does educate all types of students and makes sure every child has what he or she need to eat. The Smiths simply believe it is easier to meet the needs of the kids on their own than to deal with the headaches and costs of dealing with federal programs and all the rules and regulations that come with them. The schools annual operating budget is just about $620,000. These are all state dollars. Charters in Idaho receive no local dollars and the school doesnt want federal dollars. If the Smiths disappeared tomorrow would the school be able to continue without them? The Smiths are asked this question a lot because it is obvious their leadership, drive and commitment has been central to the schools birth and success. Both Jim and Sue Smith believe that they have developed the school and their teaching and leadership talent in such a way over that last eight years that the school could transition and get along without them. Mr. Smith said, Sue has created well -trained talent that can take over and run the education system. And, what I do can be done by others who know the basic recipe of state funding and how to manage it. The Upper Carmen Charter School has become a valued community asset, and it looks well positioned to continue educating area students to a high standard for many years to come. Other remote rural communities in America would be lucky to have such a school in their midst.