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Newest district school is looking to expand

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Photo by Tamie Meck NFSIS teacher Jenica Schevene leads students through math exercises at the North Fork School of Integrated Studies. A school within a school at Paonia Elementary School, NFSIS is in its first year of a three-year trial period.

The North Fork School of Integrated Studies is nearing the end of its first year of operation. A public school within a school at Paonia Elementary School, in its maiden year NFSIS attracted 21 students from kindergarten through fourth grade, said PES/NFSIS principal Sam Cox. They plan to add a fifth-grade classroom in the 2016-2017 school year, and a sixth-grade program for 2017-2018.

The school anticipates enrollment of about 35 students for the coming year. Cox said additional enrollment will come from home-schooled and Vision Charter Academy students, and new families moving to the area. NFSIS could also attract students from the Backpack Early Learning Academy (BELA) pre-kindergarten program.

Melody Rogers recently attended a "Visitor's Mornings" event to tour the school and meet teachers and administration. Rogers and her husband, both Paonia High School graduates, are researching all the options the district has to offer their son, who will soon be 5 years old.

NFSIS is the result of three years of community-led efforts to bring Waldorf-based education to Delta County. The parent coop Valley Waldorf Initiative was twice denied a charter application by the Delta County School District board. The group appealed to the state board of education last winter following the second denial. While they narrowly lost the appeal, VWI was urged by the state and district to fine-tune their application and reapply.

The district approached organizers last spring with the idea of the school within a school, and a compromise was reached last June.

The district approved a three-year window to allow the magnet school to demonstrate that students can meet district and state standards for achievement and growth, hire qualified teachers, and maintain sufficient enrollment numbers. At the end of each school year the district will review student achievement, growth and enrollment data, said Cox. After three years the data will be used to make a more formal determination on whether to allow the school to continue.

"I like what I saw here today," said Rogers, adding that the school could be a good fit for her son.

Classroom walls are painted in bright colors, artwork covers the walls, and brightly patterned rugs cover the floors. In Lauren Ziccardi's class, third and fourth grade students studied fractions through story-telling. Across the way, Jenica Schevene led her first and second graders through borrowing and carrying exercises.

Education methods are carried out in a non-competitive atmosphere, said Thesa Callinicos, a Waldorf education consultant and NFSIS teacher trainer. Rather than "harvest" the information in test form, students are allowed to digest, assimilate, and the recap.

Callinicos explained that each subject is taught in two-hour classes and for three to four weeks at a time. "Everything that belongs in that subject, you're immersed in it." For example, in learning Colorado history students study the geography, listen to period music, and illustrate what they've learned. After three to four weeks, they move to another subject. Six weeks later, they review their history.

A display case holds student projects, including sewing, clay models and handmade books. "Children make their own textbooks," said Callinicos. "Once you've written something down and you've illustrated it, it's yours."

Students learn skills through pattern design and machine sewing, which strengthens hand-eye coordination, basic math and geometry skills. They learn to complete projects and to focus for extended periods. Fourth-graders are learning to embroider, said Callinicos, which stimulates both left and right brain. Teachers provide other hands-on activities including cooking, drawing, counting and singing. During math exercises, "Math comes out of their fingers and toes."

Foreign languages are taught at an early age, said Callinicos, who calls the process of learning a new language "brain gymnastics." Beginning in kindergarten students study Spanish two days a week. They cook, dance and sing in Spanish. Later in their education they will learn Japanese.

Methods are intended to get kids passionate about their own education, said Callinicos. "That's how you become a life-long learner."

While NFSIS classes are held separately from PES classes, students often visit one another's classrooms to learn from each other. The two schools also share lunch and recess time. There's a fair amount of interaction during that time, said Cox, and relationships between the two schools have deepened over the course of the school year.

Ideally, teachers follow students through sixth grade, which allows for strong teacher/student relationships. Known as "looping," the practice of teachers following students traditionally goes by a two- or three-year cycle. "This situation is a little more unique," said Cox.

If incompatibilities exist between teacher and student, the teacher must adjust, said Callinicos. If a child needs more than the teacher can give, the school has access to all of the district's resources and programs.

Community Council, a group of teachers, parents and community members, meets twice a month to discuss how they can better enrich student learning experiences.

There is more active parent participation than in traditional school, and that's something they would like to see continue, said Cox. Parents are required to participate regularly in their child's education and help with extracurricular activities such as plays, celebrations and field trips. A $150 fee helps cover activities and purchases of special items such as beeswax and sewing materials.

Rogers said she is still considering her options. She was also impressed with her tour of North Fork Montessori School at Crawford, although the long commute isn't appealing, nor is putting her son on the school bus. She also wants to tour PES. After visiting NFSIS she said she has concerns about the future of the school and how her son will transition to public school after sixth grade. She would also like to know who her son's teacher will be.

But overall, "I like what I saw here today," said Rogers. "It's nice to have so many options."

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