New school leaders Becky Smith an Amber Stark stand together

Keeping it in the family

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Upper Carmen Charter School welcomes next generation of leadership

by Alan Gottlieb

Bluum seeks to develop innovative education leaders in communities throughout the Gem State to ensure children reach their highest potential. In the tiny town of Carmen live two exceptional leaders who founded Upper Carmen Charter School. Jim and Sue Smith have been running the school since 2005, and this year are ready to transition to semi-retirement.

To ensure the school maintains the tight-knit family atmosphere and high academic standards, they chose two people from within the Upper Carmen Charter School family to carry the leadership torch.

School bus at Upper Carmen Charter School

The school’s bus waits for students in front of Upper Carmen Charter School.

From the beginning, creating the school was a labor of love – initially a one-room school, they added a room onto their home outside of town. As the school grew, they put in a couple of modular classrooms and added in a cabin. This close-knit, family atmosphere in the Salmon community is an integral part of the school’s culture. In the multi-age classrooms, older students mentor younger students in their learning. It can be difficult, however, for the Smiths to leave their work behind at the end of the day.

Taking the administrative reins is the Smiths’ daughter, Becky, who has worked at the school for many years. Jim has taught Becky the ins and outs of budgeting, as well as adhering to the regulatory procedures the state Department of Education requires of charter schools.

The second leader is Amber Stark, a long-time family friend who has worked first as an aide, and then a fine arts teacher at Upper Carmen, for the past three years. She will continue to teach as she takes on more administrative duties, communications, and other more outward-facing tasks.

When the couple decided to transition out of running the school, the obvious question on everyone’s mind was: How will the school preserve its unique multi- age approach and sky-high achievement (as a result of Sue’s homegrown reading curriculum), and maintain the family feel?

The transition from founding leaders and board members to new leadership is always a challenge for single-site charter schools. There is always a risk that the vision and culture that make a school unique and beloved can erode, weakening the school.

That’s why the careful thought that the Smiths have put into their transition out of leadership can help other schools facing similar challenges navigate them successfully.

“Every individual (on the seven-member staff) has been thoroughly trained in our system and has moved up through it, so in this next cycle I’m confident it will maintain the culture and the academic performance,” said Jim, the school’s superintendent, who early in his career served as superintendent in the Salmon School District. In the short term, he and Sue will be available to lend a hand as needed.

New co-leader Stark also expressed confidence that Upper Carmen will remain the school it has always been: Tailored to the individual needs of its 57 students, with older students helping mentor younger students, and keeping learning engaging, even fun. She credits the Smiths with what she anticipates will be a smooth transition.

Sue Smith with her reading curriculum

Sue Smith presents her reading curriculum.

“Jim and Sue’s dedication and service to the school is unlike anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime of school,” Stark said. “Even as they are stepping away, they still have a hand in creating the culture. It has passed on directly from them to every single person who comes into the school, whether it be an aide or a teacher. That is what has kept it very genuine, unique, and academically incredible.”

Upper Carmen has an outsized reputation in part because Sue has spent years developing a reading curriculum originally intended just for use in her school. But she published the curriculum in 2014, and since then it has been adopted by several schools across the state.

Using the curriculum, Sue said, teachers can have most kindergarten students reading by Halloween. But to get teachers up to speed requires intensive training, because in her experience, most colleges of education “are not teaching teachers how to teach reading …So beginning teachers kind of fumble through and figure out something. And it’s a rare teacher that says, ‘You know what, I’m just not very good at this, I need some help.’”

“Jim and Sue have always had a knack for finding gifted people and putting them right where they shine and where they really grow and thrive,” Stark said. “This school has always been about furthering your education as a teacher and providing the opportunities for each teacher to do that.”

“We will be a well-oiled machine, and I suspect Jim and Sue will continue to be sprinkled in there as well,” Stark said.

Jim agreed that for the time being, he will be available as needed.  Sue is hoping to ease more fully into retirement. Jim is turning 73 this month, which he said, almost certainly makes him the oldest superintendent in Idaho. When he first became a superintendent 40 years ago, he was the state’s youngest.

Bluum celebrates Jim and Sue’s accomplishments at Upper Carmen Charter School and the profound impact they’ve made on students and families in their community. We welcome the new leadership team as they take the reins this school year at Upper Carmen Charter School.

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