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Michelle Ball and Brian Bingham cut the ribbon at Alturas Preparatory Academy

“It Feels Like They are Coming Home”

Idaho Fall’s Alturas Preparatory Academy offers a rigorous high school option for its students

by Lindsay Trombly | Watch the livestream here | View our photo gallery here 

a crowd is seated around the front of the school.
Members of the Idaho Falls community gathered to celebrate the school’s opening.

Alturas Executive Director Michelle Ball and Principal Brian Bingham cut a ribbon in front the former 73,000-square foot Sears Building at the Grand Teton Mall in Idaho Falls, transforming it into Alturas Preparatory Academy (APA) — a home for 600 students making the transition to middle and high school from Alturas International Academy (AIA).

The school’s creation began with one woman. Michelle Ball.

A veteran teacher of 37 years, Ball has been using multi-age teaching methods for 24 of those years. Seeking to expand upon and impact more students with this learning model, she took a leap of faith and left her teaching position in the school district. Twenty-four children followed her to a makeshift basement classroom in the former post office. And, soon after, more followed.

Interest from a growing group of families, and Ball’s skill as an educator, led Bluum and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to provide grant support for the development of Alturas International Academy.  AIA initially served grades K-8, but Ball said they always envisioned creating a high school.

“We felt like, if we started teaching students in this model, they would have to have this to continue on their educational journey, because it would just be too hard to transition back to a traditional way of teaching,” Ball said.

APA, like AIA, focuses on small group instruction in a multi-age classroom, which caters to the specific needs of the individual student. This instructional philosophy is used within an International Baccalaureate Program.

AIA and APA Founder and Executive Director, Michelle Ball.

“APA isn’t like starting a brand-new school. Yes, it’s a brand-new facility, but we’re just bringing those students over to a brand-new facility and a brand-new learning environment. But the learning model is still in place,” Ball said.

Since middle school at AIA wasn’t an option for students last year, they attended other schools in the area. Bingham said the students that left still email and visit, expressing their gratitude for the foundation they built to be successful in middle and high school. Some of the students who attended a different school last year are coming back to attend APA.

“We have students who left last year because they were going into 9th grade and so we didn’t get them this year. Many of those kids are coming back,” Teacher Jennifer Radford at APA said. “And I’m so excited about that, my heart just leaps with joy.”

Teachers at AIA and APA, such as Radford and Shannon Claver, have seen first-hand how this educational model has impacted not only their students, but also their own children.

“I have one daughter that just exceeds, she’s been pushed learning at an 11th and 12th grade level, and she’s going into 9th grade. And then I have one daughter who was frequently pulled (in her previous school) in class to get assistance, and ever since she’s been here…she is beyond excited to come back to school,” Claver said. “We get them excited about learning too and it’s good to see it functioning and working well with my own kids.”

Ball said the timing couldn’t be more perfect to start APA, with well-established students at AIA, and especially since they found the right facility. Ball and Bingham said they have been looking for a facility to house the high school for a few years now. They’ve considered several different buildings for APA, including an old Smith Food and Drug Store building and even a grocery store in Idaho Falls, but once they found the former Sears building, they knew it would be a great fit for students.

“We had visited Gem Prep: Pocatello and seen what they’ve been able to do with their Sears building, and they got to build everything from the inside,” Bingham said. “It was really interesting and an exciting prospective place for a school.”

Location was also a factor in deciding where to build the school, Bingham said. They wanted it close to the College of Eastern Idaho so students could have the chance to take college credits once they reach 11th and 12th grade. The school will serve grades 6-10 this year and will add a grade per year to reach 6-12th grades.

Incoming students to APA were able to select their school mascot (the Pumas) and chose various extracurricular activities the school will provide to enrich their high school experience. Such activities include track, tennis, art club, student council and other clubs based on student interest. Ball and Bingham intentionally incorporated student voice when creating the high school to give them a sense of ownership.

“When you put high school kids with kindergarteners and elementary — they want that right to move on,” Ball said. “We really did create an atmosphere that those kids are entering into high school, and one that they want.”

Bingham said he is excited to offer another school of choice for students and families in Idaho Falls.

Alturas Preparatory Academy Principal Brian Bingham

“I think the whole state of Idaho is used to a different education system and I think we are riding that wave. I think our educational model coupled together with the International Baccalaureate curriculum, a lot of the families that are living and moving here are excited to have another choice for the high school experience,” Bingham said. “It’s going to meet the demands of the community.”

Ball and Bingham said it takes a village to start a school. In addition to support from parents and the local community, APA received support from Bluum, $800,000 in federal funds from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence Charter Schools Program Grant, and grant support of $1.76 million from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

To help purchase the building and transform the retail space into a proper school facility, the duo worked with the charter school facility financing nonprofit Building Hope, and an interior designer, to help transform the former Sears building.

Ball talked about the support they have received and reflected on when AIA celebrated their grand opening just four years ago. She expressed nothing but joy.

“It just so happened Terry Ryan came in and we paralleled. I just don’t even know what would have happened if Bluum hadn’t paralleled on this journey we embarked on,” Ball said.

The Alturas Preparatory faculty is ready for students to arrive on their first day of school – August 30 – to continue their educational journey. Radford got emotional just thinking about the students who will be returning.

“We have some students who really soar and do really really well here. It has been trying to watch them leave, and kind of struggle,” Radford said. “It’s going to be amazing to be able to support these kids until they graduate. It feels like they are coming home.”

The APA Staff celebrates in front of the newly-opened facility.