by Kristen McCarver, Bluum
The only immediate clue to the age of the building is a brass plaque embedded in the brick on the northwest side. “This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.” There’s a modern glass and steel awning that protects the entrance, and much of the façade is obscured by beautiful, mature trees. On the southeast side, however, the words “Junior High” in Art Deco script are chiseled above arched doorways, and the brickwork is accented with carved stone. It’s an architectural work of art. For Michelle Ball, her students, and the Idaho Falls community, cutting the ribbon on Alturas International Academy’s building on Ridge Avenue was a homecoming of sorts. This historic property, vacant for years, and this incredible teacher and her passion for empowering children were practically made for one another.
Purchasing facilities is a challenge for all schools, but especially for charter public schools, since they can’t raise bond or levy funds the way that district schools can. That’s where our national nonprofit partners at Building Hope are a huge help. They specialize in helping charter public schools find, finance, develop, and build or remodel facilities so schools can sustainably afford to provide the best learning environment possible for their students.
When we first met Michelle, her reputation as a highly-skilled educator preceded her. Our CEO, Terry Ryan, first saw her at work in a basement, where she developed her innovative education model with her initial group of students, after leaving the school district where she taught for 30 years. As he tells it, “it only took us about 10 minutes before we realized this was someone we want to invest in.” Her multi-age classroom model where students’ work is paced according to their abilities, and the belief that “every child is a leader, ” is what makes Michelle’s classrooms such a special and empowering place for students.
In the meantime, the historic building that would someday become the new home of Alturas International Academy languished as underutilized office space. The historic building was constructed in 1930 as O.E. Bell Junior High, and countless Idaho Falls area students have memories of their time in the school. It sat vacant for nearly 20 years and was then renovated by a local investor to serve as office space. However, for some reason, it failed to attract profitable tenants. Knowing the newly chartered Alturas Academy would need a place to call home, we connected Michelle with Building Hope and the rest, as they say, is history.
While two young girls held a yellow ribbon stretched across the entrance to the building, Dru Damico, Building Hope’s Vice President of Real Estate Development, addressed the kids in the crowd before the ribbon was cut: “You’re going to make friends here, you’re going to learn here, you’re going to go do awesome things when you leave here.”
As soon as Michelle, in her yellow skirt and gold sneakers, cut the ribbon, excited families flooded through the entrance and into the newly renovated space. To the right, visitors were greeted by a flexible learning and library space. To the left, a chunk of the original gymnasium parquet floor with the mascot painted in blue and white hangs on the wall, while a huge antique globe invites students to explore the world. Upon close inspection, generations of tiny fingers filled with love and curiosity have worn off the dot that marks Idaho Falls.
Walking the halls, we overheard Jackie Bailey, a lifelong Idaho Falls native telling her friends “My grandfather went to school here, my mother went to school here, I went to junior high here, unfortunately, we skipped a generation, but my granddaughter Abby will start here in the fall.” When asked what converting this landmark back to a school means to the community, she answered with only one word: “Everything,” then elaborated to say that “new is not always the very best.”
This sentiment seemed to be the consensus, as families milled about through the halls of the newly remodeled, yet still very charming historic school building. But this is so much more than just a building; it’s legacy, community, pride, and providing a high-quality education for as many students as possible. Under Michelle’s innovative leadership and passion, and with a home to call their own, there is no doubt that generations of students will find their gifts at Alturas International Academy and learn to share them with the world.