Academic Alchemy

Flexibility is at the core of Mosier Community School

The science room at Mosier Community School was a brew of sights, sounds and smells last Thursday as science teacher Dan Rasmussen juggled experiments that captivated his students. A burnt odor lingered in the air from a previous experiment as Rasmussen attached a limp balloon to the neck of a bottle to show his students how air pressure works. As the balloon slowly expanded inside the bottle, Rasmussen whisked out an egg and a container of salt, and the kids watched wide-eyed as their teacher balanced the egg upright on salt sprinkled on a desk.

Although it seemed like magic, Rasmussen explained, the egg remained balanced because the tiny cube-shaped salt crystals formed a pedestal for it.

Then came the plungers, which Rasmussen stuck together, then had the kids pull apart in a yet another demonstration of air pressure. Finally, Rasmussen called on a student to pull the expanded balloon off the bottle, delighting the kids with a loud pop.

All in all, it was a seemingly typical afternoon in a Mid-Columbia elementary school classroom.

But many things made it not so typical. For one, the class numbered less than a dozen students — far fewer than many local classrooms in this era of shrinking school budgets and burgeoning populations. And the students, rather than being all the same age, ranged from third-graders to fifth-graders.

After 40 minutes of science experiments, the students lined up and walked down the hall to their next class — or tiger track, as the afternoon classes at Mosier School are called: Spanish.

The things that make the Mosier Community School not so typical have everything to do with the fact that it is the first charter school in the Columbia Gorge. Although officially part of the Chenowith School District in Wasco County, the Mosier School operates under a charter from the district, which means it has created its own academic model and functions autonomously from the district.

With last year’s budget woes, Wasco County’s Chenowith School District planned to close the Mosier School — the smallest in the district with about 80 students — and bus Mosier kids to Chenowith Elementary School in The Dalles. But the plan was met with fierce resistance from Mosier parents.

“No parent wanted that to happen,” said Carole Schmidt, principal of Mosier Community School. The 80 kids from Mosier would have swelled the student body at Chenowith to about 420.

“(The parents) said, ‘No, we’re going to fight to keep our school’,” Schmidt said. They researched their options and decided turning it into a charter school made the most sense.

The school applied for and was granted a charter from the Chenowith district to operate for four years, at which time the charter will be reviewed for renewal. The “charter” is a contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways it plans to measure success.

Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor — in this case, Chenowith School District — to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract, as well as to demonstrate that they are operating in a fiscally sound manner. According to Schmidt, the basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for accountability.

Mosier Community School gets state funding through the Chenowith School District — but it gets only 80 percent of funding provided for each student; Chenowith School District keeps 20 percent.

“We just have to do a better job with less,” Schmidt said. But the school doesn’t suffer for its smaller piece of the pie, according to Schmidt. Like other schools, the Mosier School holds fundraisers and relies on community support and volunteer help. And Schmidt uses her business expertise — she owned and operated the Hood River Sports Club for 13 years — to “make every penny count.” (Before that, Schmidt spent 13 years in education; she holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, an administrative certificate, and has a background in teaching special education.)

While writing their charter, Mosier’s school board, administrators and teachers adopted what’s known as a multi-age curriculum approach for their academic model. First- and second-graders are called “primaries”; third- and fourth-graders are “juniors”; and fifth-graders are “seniors.” (The school plans to add sixth grade next year.) The school also has kindergarten and a Spanish immersion preschool.

The multi-age learning approach means that students aren’t divided in classrooms by their grade level. Instead, primaries — first- and second-graders — are in classes together, as are juniors. Next year, seniors — which will be fifth- and sixth-graders — will be grouped together.

“The great advantage of the multi-age learning environment is that students are not stuck within a particular grade,” Schmidt said. “So many kids are either above or below their grade level. There are very few kids who are exactly at a particular level.” The multi-age curriculum approach means that a third-grader who is advanced in spelling can move on to the fourth grade spelling curriculum. And because classes are small — all have from 14-17 students — teachers can spend more individual time with students who need extra help in a particular area.

“You learn as you’re ready to learn, but it means in most cases kids can generally go faster,” Schmidt said. “It’s really exciting and it seems to be working.”

School days at the Mosier School are structured so that all students spend mornings studying core subjects — math, reading and language arts. In the afternoons, the primaries have extended reading time as well as classes in art, music and Spanish. Juniors and seniors rotate among tiger tracks (named after Mosier School’s mascot, the tiger) which include science, music, art, literature, computers and Spanish.

The third- through fifth-graders are divided into three groups of about 15 students each, and proceed through three 40-minute tiger tracks per afternoon. Depending on the tiger track rotation, the groups are often divided again into groups of 7 or 8.

“That means students get one teacher for eight students for a two-hour period,” Schmidt said. “That’s really valuable.”

Along with the multi-age learning environment, part of the academic model adopted by the school is what Schmidt calls a “thematic” approach to learning, where themes or subjects are applied across several classes.

“If the students are studying moths, the lessons in math, reading and science might all be oriented around moths,” she said. “That way it has more meaning for the students.”

Less than a month into the school year, Mosier parents seem to be pleased with the new direction of the Mosier Community School. Nancy Wilson, who has two daughters at the school — a third-grader and a fourth-grader — is happy with the changes.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is the small class size,” Wilson said. A substitute teacher and long-time volunteer at the school, Wilson was ready to provide aid in the classrooms during the first few days of school. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that she wasn’t needed.

“The teachers didn’t have a need for extra help in the classroom,” she said. “It’s such an advantage to the students because there’s that one-on-one attention and not so much distraction.” Wilson also lauds the “positive energy” at the school.

“Everything’s very positive,” she said. “There seems to be a very positive outlook.”

That’s something Carole Schmidt is working to foster.

“The school is exciting, encouraging, motivating, and the teachers are having fun,” she said. “I think that’s really important. If the teachers are enjoying it, you have that pure love of learning, and that’s what we’re trying to instill.”

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