A True Original

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Charter School Pioneer Celebrates Retirement

by Alan Gottlieb

Jackie Collins is retiring at the end of this school year, after leading Idaho Arts Charter School in Nampa since it opened in 2005. 

Jackie is one of Idaho’s charter school pioneers, and the K-12 school she has led is the second-largest brick-and-mortar charter school in Idaho, serving some 1,300 students. Almost half of Idaho Arts students come from low-income families, and would likely have had limited exposure to the arts had it not been for Jackie’s school.

School leader Jackie Collins stands behind seated students watching a fellow student perform at Idaho Arts Charter School

Executive Director Jackie Collins watches a student perform for their classmates at Nampa’s Idaho Arts Charter School.

Talking to Jackie, and people who have worked for and with her, leaves the indelible impression of a forceful, big-hearted leader whose drive and compassion have improved education in Idaho; not just for her students and staff, but for the other schools whose leaders she has mentored and coached.

Anthony Haskett, who now leads MOSAICS Public School in Caldwell, said Jackie not only hired him for his first administrative position – assistant principal at Idaho Arts – but also incubated MOSAICS and mentored him as he developed the school. He learned a lot from her, on many levels.

“I don’t want to say she’s fierce,” he said with a laugh, “but she is so good at business. She helped me in so many ways and she also navigated her school through so much growth and so many changes. Charters get a lot of support now from the Bluum team, but Jackie was out there doing it on her own before Bluum existed.”

Bluum CEO Terry Ryan also sees Jackie as an inspirational Idaho charter pioneer. ““When I first met Jackie I was intimidated by her because she seemed to have it so together that I didn’t see any real way that I could be helpful or supportive of her or her school,” he said.

“But I came to realize in spending time with her that she is so impressive because she is not only highly competent, but also sensitive and open to doing things better and smarter. That’s why she has been such a great leader.”

Jackie leaves an impressive legacy, those who know her best agree. “Jackie’s legacy can be found in the hundreds of lives she has helped to change and improve because of the impact her school has had on a generation of Nampa school children,” Terry said.

Jackie Collins cuts the ribbon on the new Idaho Arts campus, 2016

And Marie McGrath, who has worked with Jackie at Idaho Arts from the school’s earliest days, said Jackie’s legacy is that she makes educators who have worked with her better at their craft.

“Jackie has taught me so much about myself as a leader,” Marie said. “Jackie’s very honest and straightforward, and the good thing about that is it is the only way we can grow. I’m a better educator and a better leader because of her honesty. She doesn’t avoid hard conversations. She hits things in a very productive way and handles things in a way that makes people improve themselves and look at themselves and I really appreciate that about her.”

The best way to get a sense of Jackie is to hear from her directly. Bluum recently interviewed her about her years in education in general and at Idaho Arts specifically. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose this particular time to retire?

Jackie: I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. And finally, you just kind of go, ‘it’s time.’ I’ve been doing this since 1980, that’s 42 years. It’s time. My life has been school, and it has been fun. It’s time to give the reins to somebody else. I’ve started to realize that there’s other stuff to do while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.

Tell us a little about your history in education, and how you came to Idaho Arts.

Jackie: I started teaching in Blackfoot, Idaho. I was a political science and speech major so I taught everything from (high school) history and U.S. government to speech and debate. I coached for a number of years, I did a little drama. I taught econ, sociology, psychology. Then I got my master’s in special education and so I did some special ed. I taught in Nampa for a number of years, then in West Ada, and then Boise.

After about 20 years of teaching, I started thinking about getting into administration. So I got a degree in administration. One day I read a newspaper article about people starting a charter school in Nampa. I knew a couple of them. So I applied for the principal job, not having any idea what I was getting into. And I got it.

Did you have any background in the arts before taking the job?

Jackie: Honestly? Not really. I taught a little drama, but that was about it. My background was more business-minded and organizational-minded, more academic. Now I do have a strong appreciation for the arts. The school has done that for me. But at first it did feel like a weird fit. 

What was it like launching a charter school back in 2005?

Jackie: There was a little bit of startup money from the state, maybe a little bit from Albertsons (the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which now, frequently through Bluum, provides major support to charter school start-up efforts), and then you were kind of on your own. We were in a building and some portable classrooms in Nampa for the first three years.

It was a really rickety situation, but we thought it was the Taj Mahal. We used old textbooks and old curriculum the Nampa school district didn’t want. Nothing was fancy for three solid years, and then we saved up enough money, and the original founders and board had this grandiose idea that we should build a new school building. But the money to do that just wasn’t there.

Then this guy came to me and said “I’ve got this great building for you. It’s turnkey” So I go over and it’s this ancient school building. Supposedly it had been condemned by the district, and a church was occupying it. I walked through, went outside, looked at the building and I thought, how is this turnkey? 

But then I thought, well, if we did a remodel, put in new air conditioning and upgraded the heating system, wired it for technology, new carpets, new bathrooms, you know, maybe this could work.

So, long story short, we ended up going out for bonds on that building. It is the oldest school building in Nampa. We fixed up the outside and the inside and we added a wing, and it was amazing. We moved everything over, and I said my work is done. You know in my head I’d worked so hard for three years to get to this point.

As we continued to add kids, we added more wings. Every few years it was “let’s add more kids, let’s add another wing; let’s add more kids, let’s add another wing.” For 17 years we’ve been building and expanding. We’ve added a second campus.

And the school has become an important institution in Nampa?

Jackie: It has been super fun and we’ve added all kinds of cool programs for kids. It has been a really good addition to the Nampa community. We bring the arts to a group of students that wouldn’t otherwise get this exposure. Thousands of kids have come to our school over the years. They learned how to play the piano or how to be on the stage in a play and all sorts of other things that they probably wouldn’t have gotten to experience going to another school.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over your years in education?

Jackie: It took me 40 years, but I’ve learned how to say I’m wrong. I’m sorry. And to be a better listener, that took a long time. Because I just kind of tend to bulldoze through stuff.

What are you proudest of?

Jackie: As I said earlier, having opened the school, having it be successful for these kids. Bringing the arts to a population that probably wouldn’t have gotten to experience them.

 

Idaho Arts Charter School is a Bluum Portfolio school and has received grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program grant.

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