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Idaho’s Most Remote Public Charter School – Island Park

by Kristen McCarver

Idaho’s varied, naturally wild geography – from the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie to the plains around the mighty Snake river – lends itself to a state full of communities that are just as diverse. For the most rugged and rural, public charter schools offer a unique way for people to create schools that are most relevant to their community needs.

Island Park is near Yellowstone, but since it’s only 500 feet wide (and 33 miles long!) it borders the Targhee National Forest. The “Island Park Caldera” reaches all the way to Yellowstone Lake. If you look on the map, the school is on the edge of the Caldera at Mack’s Inn (about 3 miles from Big Springs).

Nowhere is this truer than in remote, rural Island Park, near Yellowstone National Park in eastern Idaho. Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools, which are open to all students. Fifty-six years ago, the Island Park public school closed its doors, and since then, students of all ages have been bussed down the mountain to Ashton for their education. The round trip makes for roughly a 10-hour day – students board the bus as early as 6:30 AM and disembark around 4:30 PM. This daily excursion is especially tough on young children and their parents.

When veteran charter educator Connie Day was invited by the community of Island Park to lead a church service on the weekends, she discovered that parents, and other community members, had spent decades wishing for an option that would allow them to educate their children closer to home.

Inspired by this need, she took a leap of faith, left her long-time position at White Pine Charter School in Ammon, and moved to Island Park to start Island Park Charter School, for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. This school is made possible through support from within the local school district (who serves as the school authorizer and school supporter) the local community, Bluum’s Idaho New School Fellowship, grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, and local funders too. This support has been key for Connie and the town of Island Park to launch the school, which is expecting to serve 15 to 20 students this fall.

The Fellowship is a one or two-year paid opportunity to develop an effective, innovative and financially viable public charter school. Since 2016, Bluum has supported 19 fellows with funding and access to resources to design, build, and launch high-performing public charter schools in Idaho communities, ranging from Garden City in the Treasure Valley, to northern Idaho, to Fruitland on the Oregon border, and to Island Park in the east.

Fellows receive Idaho-specific training on financial and legal requirements to open a school in Idaho, and work in tandem with community members, future students, and families to build a school focused on strong academic and social progress.

Through the New School Fellowship, Bluum seeks to elevate top education talent into the ranks of Idaho’s public school leadership. Connie’s career in education began as a substitute teacher in her daughter’s school, and it blossomed from there. Her classroom at a charter school in Southeastern Idaho was often an exemplar for school visitors, and her passion and dedication led her to become a mentor teacher and the school’s curriculum coordinator.

She credits her previous experience as a pastor and her non-traditional path into education for allowing her to see education in a different way. She’s “interested and excited to see how kids learn,” and teaches each child with an individualized approach. Academically, she “runs a tight ship,” and has high expectations for her students. But experience has taught her that fun things like movement, sign language, and music keep the kids engaged in meaningful and effective learning.

A young moose grazes near Island Park Charter School.

Education at Island Park Charter School is not confined to the classroom. One of the advantages to both the charter model and the school’s rural location is the opportunity to use place-based learning – correlating science and biology lessons directly with the surrounding environment and ecology of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Because charter schools receive less funding for facilities than district schools do, charter school leaders often have to be creative to find facility solutions. Island Park Charter School will open its doors this fall in a renovated motel building generously donated by a supportive member of the community.

Island Park Charter School was also one of 17 schools selected to receive funding to participate in an all-day Kindergarten Pilot program. The grant will allow the school to provide all-day kindergarten free of charge (the state currently only funds half-day programs). Academic effectiveness and impact will be shared to better inform the ongoing discussion around strategies to improve literacy in Idaho.

Communities need all kinds of school options – sometimes they need options that provide varied academic models, sometimes they just need an option that isn’t hours away. Charters give districts and communities more options and the flexibility to meet the unique needs of students and families.

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