By Danna McCoy
For The Journal
Be Kind. Work Hard. No Excuses. Seek Excellence.
This is the motto of the small school at the south edge of town. At first glance it doesnâ€™t look all that different than any other school. Once you look more closely, a few things start to stand out.
There are solar panels over the front entrance and a working wind turbine that can be seen spinning behind the school. It was the first of its kind in Pocatello. Pocatello Community Charter School is a public school of choice for the Pocatello/Chubbuck community. It is a green school that models recycling and responsible stewardship of our environment.
Students from kindergarten to eighth grade are taught through Expeditionary Learning, a hands-on, in-depth study of a subject. The successes of this school have gained national attention and earned them the designation of Mentor School for other Expeditionary Learning institutions.
When middle school students learn about alternative energy sources such as wind turbines, they donâ€™t just read about it. They spend two weeks conducting guided experiments exploring blade pitch, surface area, mass, etc., as they build their own miniature wind turbines. Last year when the fifth and sixth grade crews were studying water quality, they conducted field work by going to the Portneuf and surrounding areas to take water samples and collect first hand data.
They then analyzed the data to determine the health of the water system and what factors may be impacting the system. Field work for these kids might take them on a hike up City Creek or on a walk to ISU. They may go to Yellowstone National Park for four days or to the McCall Outdoor Science School for five days. This hands-on learning allows for deeper understanding and more meaningful connections to real-world applications.
Children here are taught they are crew, not passengers. Each is actively responsible for taking part in their own learning and for working together to accomplish goals. Except for kindergarten, crews consists of two grade levels, first and second, third and fourth, fifth and sixth, and seventh and eighth. Each grade level has three crews.
Because students study subjects in depth, more advanced students can be challenged by the finer details of an expedition, while other students who may need more time are exposed to the information repeatedly in different ways so that they can grasp the main concepts. Older students mentor younger students.
Character grows through service, so crews engage in service projects that benefit the school and surrounding community. Last fall, the first and second grade crews gleaned potato fields after the harvest and donated them to the Idaho Food Bank as part of their expedition on potatoes. Just a few weeks ago one of the fifth/sixth grade crews worked with a first/second grade crew to clean up a parking lot near Pocatello High School.
In February, when the 7th/ 8th grade crews cross country skiing trips were cancelled due to lack of snow, they went hiking instead and cleaned up the trail on the way. Appreciation for the natural world and respect of our environment are integral parts of the learning curriculum. I am often impressed with how well they work together and help each other.
The Adventure Program takes kids out of the classroom and encourages children to experience personal growth through physical challenges such as rock climbing, hiking, camping, skiing, and snowshoeing. Students are taught outdoor skills that become more complex as they get older.
Every year PCCS students participate in speech festival. This is an opportunity to practice public speaking skills before peers and judges in three different rounds. Kids from all grades practice for weeks for this is all-day event. This gives them an opportunity to become effective speakers and communicators. Many volunteers are needed to make events like this happen and members of the community are welcome to participate.
Another special feature of PCCS is Passages. On even grade years, as a student graduates from one crew to the next, they go through this exercise. Students assemble high quality work from the past two years into a portfolio. The standards for the portfolio align with State Achievement Standards and are used to assess a studentâ€™s readiness to pass onto the next grade level. This is also another speaking opportunity.
Children practice and prepare to go before a panel of three adults. The panel may consist of a crew leader, an ISU Professor, a business professional, a community member and/or a parent. Kids explain, in depth, pieces of their best work. They are expected to identify what the learning targets were, what the process was, drafts along the way, and finally a detailed explanation of the final product. Panelists ask questions, acknowledge successes and students are held accountable for less than acceptable work.
When I was preparing to write this article, I asked several middle school students what they thought were the one or two things that makes PCCS so unique. They told me â€śbeing crew, that is a lot different than other schools.â€ť They said â€śbullying really doesnâ€™t happen here.â€ť I canâ€™t say that it never happens, but it is not tolerated.
â€śThe adventure programâ€ť and â€śfield workâ€ť were another of the main things that students said makes PCCS a special school. â€śUniformsâ€ť also were noted. Uniforms are required by the school, but in keeping with the recycle mindset, a uniform exchange bin is available, and all families are welcome to add to or take from as needed.
I have the special privilege of seeing this school from many different perspectives. My son has attended here since kindergarten and is now in the sixth grade. I have teamed up with amazing crew leaders and staff to work through some bumps along the way. As a parent I am ever impressed with the outstanding compassion and dedication of the crew leaders and staff.
Parental involvement and volunteerism are vital to the function of this school. Due to the hands-on nature of learning here, parents provide much needed support to crew leaders in the classroom, during fieldwork, and on adventure outings.
For the last year I have worked part time as a teaching assistant in the upper grades. We have an outstanding group of kids, many with strong leadership skills. Hereâ€™s a great example. If you visit PCCS for a tour of our school, you will most likely be guided by two members of our middle school student council. Interested parents can see first hand what articulate, sincere young leaders Pocatello Community Charter School helps to develop.
As PTO president I have worked with parents, staff and crew leaders on events to raise funds for various improvements for the school. A common misconception that I hear is how Charter Schools get their funding. They do get a share of state education funds, but all other funding comes through grants and fundraising activities.
What that means is that this school is responsible for purchasing and maintaining its own building and property, while public schools can, and do, ask taxpayers to vote for supplemental bonds to fill budget shortfalls and building needs. This is why fundraising and grant writing are so important to small schools like this one.
The PCCS PTO is currently preparing for the Seventh Annual Chocolate Extravaganza that will take place from 6:30-10 p.m. on March 14 at the Museum of Clean. This yearâ€™s theme is 1960 on Madison Avenue. The Chocolate Extravaganza is our biggest fundraiser of the year.
It is a grown ups only event with tasty chocolate treats, live music, no-host bar and both silent and live auctions. Last fall saw the completion of our long awaited gymnasium but it is still a bit empty. The two main focuses for this yearâ€™s Chocolate Extravaganza will be to fund an electronic scoreboard for the gym and to purchase six new smart boards for classrooms.
At this time about half the rooms have the smart boards and this will enable each classroom to utilize this interactive technology. Event tickets can be purchased in advance for $25/couple or $100/ table or at the door for $30/ couple. If you would like to purchase tickets to the Chocolate Extravaganza, or learn more about our school, call PCCS at 208-478-2522.
Danna McCoy serves as president of the Pocatello Community Charter School Parent-Teacher Organization. She also works as an educational assistant at the school and as an in-home caregiver. She was raised in Moreland and has lived in Pocatello for the last 15 years. Both she and her husband have actively volunteered for Pocatello Community Charter School since their son started kindergarten there 7 years ago. In addition to the many committees she serves on, she helps advise the schoolâ€™s garden club. This is her third year helping coordinate the annual Chocolate Extravaganza.