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Garden City's first-ever public school is set to open this fall, and it promises to be unlike any the Treasure Valley has ever seen

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When the Idaho Legislature approved the charter school system back in 1998, the conservative lawmaking body probably never imagined they'd be doing business with a guy like Matthew Shapiro. Shapiro, a 38-year-old Brooklyn native with an obvious penchant for doing things in his own way, would even admit that.

"The charter school system really makes for some interesting bedfellows," Shapiro observes inside his makeshift office at the Garden City Dillon Auto Parts. "People call me an idealist, but I really think idealism is just realism that is done without the fear of never getting to see the results in one's own lifetime."

Right now, Shapiro is doing something in which he must see results. On September 5, the substitute teacher and former college dropout will open his own elementary and middle school, Garden City Community School. But rather than relying on industry experts, the Treasure Valley's newest public charter school will put parents, teachers and even children largely in charge of curriculum design.

As Shapiro describes it, his school will "de-professionalize" the curriculum-making process, which in recent years has become heavily standardized across the country due to federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

"We're making the educational expert more of a consultant and we're letting teachers, parents and children design a system from scratch," Shapiro says.

Shapiro's resume may not read like your typical school founder, but he is far more than a former college dropout and sub. Shapiro says he left school initially because he was unfulfilled by it. He had a dream of living off the land and away from the "overcrowded, unhealthy" city, so he headed west 17 years ago. For several years, he made a living as a wind energy consultant, after studying the subject for just eight months on his own.

"I'm drawn to challenges," Shapiro says.

Eventually, Shapiro tired of working in the world of industry, so he shifted his focus to where he saw an opportunity to help transform society person-by-person. He graduated from Boise State last spring with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, and the university was so impressed with Shapiro's undergraduate research and published writings, he was allowed to bypass his master's level work. He is now working on his doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Boise State.

But more immediately, Shapiro finds himself in the midst of history--Garden City history. Never before has this socio-economically diverse four square miles--commonly the butt of many a Boisean's jokes and subject to unflattering monikers like "Garbage City" and "Felony Flats"--been home to a public school. Garden City's 11,000 people have always relied on the city's neighboring Boise district schools, such as Whittier and Taft elementaries, to provide its children with an education.

According to former Garden City Mayor Ted Ellis, the city spent years lobbying to get a school built, but until now, the struggle to find an acceptable location has derailed the process. "A community of this size certainly deserves a school, but land availability was always limited and the land that was available was always not suitable for a school," Ellis said. "One time we thought we had the right piece of land until we found out it had wetlands and we could not build on it."

When Shapiro wanted to gauge community interest for a charter school in Garden City, he even accomplished that in an unorthodox way. In the hopes of reaching as many Garden city residents as possible, he sent surveys inside utility bills. Then-mayor Ellis was so eager to bring a school to his city, he allowed Shapiro conduct the survey in this way. When the heavier packages caused postage rates to jump hundreds of dollars, Shapiro covered the cost.

Of the 4,500 surveys, 4 percent were filled out and returned. It's not whopping, but that high a response rate would actually be coveted in the direct mail marketing world. The number that encouraged Shapiro to found the school was a bit more staggering--82 percent of respondents said they wanted a charter school because it would benefit Garden City.

Using aerial photographs of Ada County, Shapiro managed to find a spot for Garden City School with a few clicks of the mouse. Since the school will house just over 200 kids at capacity, a one-and-a-half-acre open lot on the corner of 44th Street, north of Adams Street, will suffice for the next few years.

Standing on the empty lot looking north, the location feels like an idyllic spot for a school. Nestled against a tree-lined section of the Boise River, the lot even has views of the rolling Boise Foothills in the distance. Imagine a game of dodge-ball with that backdrop. But then look around to the east, west and south, Garden City reality hits. The lot is adjacent to industrial buildings and trailer parks--a setting that won't be confused with a Norman Rockwell painting any time soon.

This visual juxtaposition of the sublime and the squalid echoes the opportunities and challenges now facing the fledgling school.

Although Garden City School will use a progressive view of education to teach and discipline its youth, more than 100 families have already confirmed their children will attend this fall. Shapiro's goal is to eventually accommodate 210 children grades K through 8, with high school grade levels to follow.

Shapiro learned last week that the Boys and Girls Club will not allow the charter school to use its athletic facilities this coming school year. Using facilities such as these was a linchpin in the school's plan to give children traditional physical activity opportunities until a more permanent site for could be located and obtained. By not housing gym facilities, the charter school would have extra space to create a working garden used for teaching everything from horticulture to business classes. The gardening program will still go on, Shapiro confirmed, but the size of the physical garden may face some constraints.

"We'll just have to be resourceful," Shapiro says. "We'll set up our modulars [portable classrooms] in a way that gets the most out of the natural space on the site." Shapiro suggested that an outdoor volleyball net could be set up to give students that gym experience. A climbing area and a small portable basketball court could also be used on the lot.

The loss of the club facilities isn't the first, nor likely the last hurdle Shapiro will have to overcome. Last year, when he petitioned the Boise School District for the right to charter a school, the school board neither approved nor rejected his proposal. They deferred to the state's Public Charter School Commission, to whom Shapiro made his case all over again.

According to Boise School District Superintendent Stan Olson, the reason that the Garden City School was booted to the state was because the petition represented "a whole lot of work for us" when the district needed to focus on passing the school bond. "This is a very arduous and complicated process," Olson says. "We saw an application that needed to be honed and we had a decision to make." When Shapiro took the petition to the state commission, it was approved on its second hearing.

"I think the district gave us a fair shake and I hope we can work with them in the future," Shapiro says.

Because the petition was approved by the state and not a local school district, Garden City Community School will operate as its own school district (formally called a Local Educational Agency), gaining even more autonomy over its curriculum and other programs.

Paul Powell, a commissioner on the state's charter school commission--the body that approved the Garden City charter, calls Shapiro's plan "different and innovative." But Powell, who founded Hidden Springs Charter School using the more established and regimented Harbor method, also sees Garden City School as "an experiment."

"With charter schools you have some that replicate models and some that develop a new approach. Garden City definitely falls in the second category," Powell observes. "With experiments, some succeed and some fail. Ultimately, it's the customer that will decide."

Parents, teachers and board members of Garden City School make it clear that they believe in Shapiro's vision for the school, largely because they helped design that vision over the last two years.

"I have passion for this model," says Barbara Gaston, the mother of two students who will start this fall at the charter school. Gaston, who lives on a small farm on the western-most end of Garden City, had been sending her two daughters to a private school in Boise. She says she was pleased with the education her children were receiving, but things changed just over two years ago when Gaston gave birth to triplets.

"My husband and I can't realistically put five children through private school, so Garden City Community School represents a great opportunity for us," Gaston says.

For nearly two years, Gaston has been intimately involved with every detail of planning and designing this school. The board recently elected her as president. While Gaston, a project manager at Hewlett Packard with a Ph.D. in astronomy, does not bring professional education experience to the table, she does bring real world accomplishments--something many charter school models prefer.

"I want my children to be in an educational environment that is integrated with the arts and can produce critical thinkers and community-centered individuals," Gaston says. "But what's most important is my belief that this model can work."

The democratic model of school planning that is the core operating principle of Garden City School stems from a philosophy called "participatory educational design." In a nutshell, participatory design's proponents theorize that all stakeholders of an educational system must take part in designing the system if it's expected to work.

"Learning cannot be coerced," Shapiro says.

Ten years ago, Shapiro's ideas garnered a proverbial stamp of approval from Jonas Salk, after the inventor of the polio vaccine had read One Nature, a book Shapiro wrote about culture's impact on human development.

"I sent copies of the book to 50 people around the world who I thought might take an interest in it," Shapiro recalls.

Salk, who was involved with developing an AIDS vaccine at the time, invited Shapiro to his home in La Jolla, California, to discuss the implications of Shapiro's book. It was a conversation that lasted two hours, but it carried an impact that Shapiro still feels today.

"It was pretty amazing. Here was this 27-year-old college dropout sitting with this 80-year-old world famous intellectual," Shapiro recalls. "It was incredible to see how two people with very different paths had arrived at the same place and at the same conclusion."

Salk and Shapiro ended their conversation discussing death, since both men felt the world had an unhealthy relationship with the idea. Salk told Shapiro he had come to terms with the idea of death since he had always been living his life at the forefront of what he wanted to do. A day later, Salk died.

"The timing of those words provided a kind of validation for me to move forward with these ideas and put them into use in everyday life," Shapiro says. "In our first phone conversation, he told me 'Finally a paradigm has appeared on the planet that is appropriate for our times.'"

And that's where Shapiro and the other Garden City School stakeholders are now, nurturing innovative systems from scratch, by utilizing opportunities such as Idaho's public charter school law.

How the School Will Work

From top to bottom, Garden City School has been designed in a way that will ensure it is never confused with other Treasure Valley charter schools--especially those utilizing the hierarchical Harbor method which has come to dominate new charter schools in Idaho.

But perhaps the most glaring difference between a traditional school and Garden City School will be its use of multi-age learning. As its name indicates, multi-age learning brings children of different ages into the same classroom. Instead of placing all 5-year-olds in Kindergarten and all 6-year-olds in first grade, Garden City School will place all 5- and 6-year-olds in the Explorers grade level. The other levels (and their two-year age span) are: Challengers (ages 6 and 7), Builders (ages 7 and 8), Creators (ages 8 and 9), Pathfinders (ages 10 and 11), Seekers (ages 12 and 13), and Leaders (ages 14 to 17).

"We named the grade levels based on the type of learning that comes naturally for kids in that two-year age span," Shapiro explained.

Garden City School's designers decided to do away with the traditional age-based system because of the natural variation they see in child development. However, Shapiro does not consider this system to resemble combination classes in traditional schools, where students with similar skill levels are often placed in the same class. Instead, children with more advanced skills will be expected to help mentor and tutor their counterparts.

"You don't want homogeneity in the classroom when the real world is all about heterogeneity," Shapiro says.

Parent Pat Conn says the mixed-age classroom is one of her favorite aspects of this charter school.

"The mentoring is something that will strengthen both the advanced learner and the less advanced one because we learn from our peers. We learn from interacting with other people," Conn says. "In the younger ages, this is so vastly important."

Conn has recently moved from Utah, where she had sent her children to a charter school similar in structure to Garden City Community School. She had also home-schooled one of her kids and, years ago, she taught English as a Second Language classes to Eskimos in jails. She says these experiences gave her an appreciation of the power of smaller class sizes, and she is glad Garden City Community School will have a limit of 20 students per classroom.That small size is something that cannot be guaranteed at Whittier Elementary, her neighborhood school. So when Conn learned that Whittier would not be renovated with the first wave of Boise school district bond monies, she decided to give something else a try.

"I went to Whittier and it needed improvements back then, and I'm 47," Conn quips.

Even with the right size and structure of classrooms at Garden City Community School, Conn admits to having concerns over whether the new charter school could meet the Idaho state requirements on standardized tests. Test scores--and not parent buy-in or student happiness--will, for better or worse, be used to judge the charter school's success in this era of government intervention.

"That was my question at the first open house, and I was satisfied with what Mr. Shapiro had to say. And if I see that things aren't working out, then I can always put them back into the Boise School District," Conn says. "But I really think this is an opportunity I can't pass up and I believe in it. I'm not one to gamble with my children's education."

Part of Shapiro's plan to have kids meet state standards is to utilize the concept of negotiated curriculum. This concept will work differently for students of different ages, but for the most part, students will determine which learning activities they do during part of the day. Once a teacher and student agree to a plan, the student will work individually or with a partner with similar plans. Students will report on their work, and teachers will monitor whether objectives are being met.

"We will meet state standards, we're just not going to do it in the traditional way," Shapiro says. "You can meet standards by designing a curriculum based on the standards. You can meet standards using textbooks written to the standards. Or, you can share with kids what the state expects them to learn and then let them have a say in how they are going to learn those things."

In the case that Garden City Community School's standardized test results do not meet expectations, the state's charter school commission would intervene and require the school to design a "cure" for the problem. If scores still don't improve, the commission would shut the school down.

Another key feature of the Garden City Community School curriculum will be its use of Self-Education Exploration Centers. SEECs are labs and studios designed and operated by students to encourage real-world applications of pursuits such as visual arts, music and horticulture. For instance, the garden on the school site could be used to sell produce at a farmer's market, making the garden a place to learn science and a tool to learn finance. Garden City Community School will also have a full-time arts integration coordinator to help teachers seek ways to integrate the arts into learning experiences. If the students decide to do a music-oriented SEEC, the coordinator may help students form a band. The band could record its music in a studio, sell their CDs and perform around town, providing students with lessons in music, technology, marketing and other fields.

"The arts represent an alternative way to use all the senses and way to express knowledge," Shapiro says. "They should not be separate from teaching. They should not be 'extra' curricular."

Behavior and Discipline

Just because the Garden City Community School doesn't use the structure of a Harbor or traditional school, don't think they'll operate without structure or discipline. That's a message Shapiro and other school founders are adamant about.

Marti Monroe is a grandmother to future students of the school and currently sits on the Garden City Community School board of directors. Monroe, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and is an experienced family and marriage counselor, has been instrumental in developing the charter school's "positive discipline system," which she believes will be "a gift to the Treasure Valley."

Positive discipline is framed around what proponents call the "Four Rs": respect, responsibility, resourcefulness and responsiveness. Only three rules will be imposed on children by the school, Monroe says. The first rule is to do nothing dangerous to oneself, others and property. The second rule is to be under adult supervision at all times. The last rule is to leave immediately and in silence when given a "point out" by a teacher. In August, all staff will be trained in this discipline system.

"If you think you have to whip kids into shape, or if you think kids can't be trusted to figure out how to behave, then you don't know kids very well," says Monroe. "There is a lot of punishment and reward in most school systems, but what we're aiming for is the kids finding solutions to problems by themselves."

All children entering the school will know that if they break any of the three rules or any rule agreed upon within an individual classroom is broken, it will result in a referral. After three referrals, the school will send a letter home to parents. If the student gets another referral, he or she must participate in a so-called "consequence counseling session." Not until his or her 13th referral would a student get expelled from the school.

"I would guess that situation would be quite rare in our school," Monroe says.

In true participatory design fashion, the school will allow students to appeal referrals.

The Teachers

Convincing a parent, a student, a school board or a community to try something new can be a complicated process. Throw teachers into that mix, and you have a whole new dimension of concerns and questions.

The school has hired five full-time teachers and Shapiro says they may need to bring on two to three more if enrollment dictates. If the teachers' first get-together from two Fridays ago is any indication, they have bought in.

"We were supposed to just meet and greet for an hour, but it turned into five hours," says Cathi Galdos, one of the new hires. "Whenever you are getting something off the ground and have never worked with each other before, you're going to have lots to talk about. I was extremely impressed by the level of experience and enthusiasm of the other teachers."

Galdos, who has a master's in curriculum and instruction from Boise State, says she believes in the school's multi-age, negotiated curriculum. She said that the teachers will use team-teaching and classroom aids to make their workload manageable and classes effective. "This is a more efficient means of educating," Galdos says. "But the fact that this is the first time a school has existed in Garden City makes it special in and of itself."

Today Garden city, tomorrow ...

For now, Shapiro is focused on making the participatory design model work within Garden City, but if he finds success, don't put it past him to take the paradigm elsewhere. Shapiro says since he was in the sixth grade, he has always wanted to change the world. In 1997, before he focused specifically on improving education, Shapiro ran for Mayor of Boise in the hopes of making a positive change locally. He lost, but not before garnering a respectable 30 percent of the vote.

"I don't think our educational design should threaten people within the traditional school system, but what we do will probably threaten institutional ideas," Shapiro predicts. "What we do will overthrow all assumptions."

For more information about curriculum, enrollment and employment at Garden City Community School, visit www.gardencityschool.org.

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