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Safe Harbor NO More

Charter school support group closes its doors

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As of December, nine schools in the Treasure Valley are going to be on their own.

The Harbor Institute, which helped establish the schools, has filed for dissolution, meaning the agency will officially shut its doors at the end of November.

The explanation is not a common one: The organization was too successful.

"There was not enough infrastructure," said Acting Executive Director Sally Anderson. "We didn't have enough hours and financial resources to respond to not only the increasing demand for more schools like that, but to sustain the existing ones."

Since its inception in 2003, the group has helped open 11 schools in the state, all of which follow its Harbor Method. The educational approach holds students to high academic standards, while creating a stern­—critics say overly so—but safe environment.

For a mere $50,000 to $55,000, the institute provided schools with an intense training session, curriculum materials and mentoring services for one year. While the schools participating in the program have all been successful, with enrollment climbing each year, none could afford the additional $10,000 annual fee proposed by institute officials for continued training and development.

The institute had no full-time staff, but contracted with educators from across the valley to provide training and other services. "It was not a sustainable funding mechanism," Anderson said.

It was only after several years that institute officials began to realize they needed some sort of plan for long-term viability.

"It's not unlike business that emerges because there's an immediate need," Anderson said. "There were few people at the institute and the need was right here, right now."

The immediate effect on the existing schools is still unknown, although few believe there will be any major changes.

"I don't think anything will change," said Nolene Weaver, principal at Owhyee-Harbor Elementary School, the only non-charter school to use the Harbor method.

"We will continue to operate as a Harbor school," she said. "The big difference is the technical assistance and support we've received from the Harbor Institute will no longer be available to us."

Weaver said she's not concerned. Since the school began using the Harbor model, enrollment has steadily increased. Weaver said the school finished last year with 270 students, and 310 are enrolled for the coming year.

John Montgomery, principal at Hidden Springs Charter School, said he doesn't anticipate any negative effects either, although he hopes to form partnerships with other Harbor Method schools to create a network for training and curriculum.

None of the charters for the schools are threatened by the closing of the Harbor Institute, said Tamara Baysinger, charter schools program manager for the Idaho State Board of Education.

"To the best of my knowledge, all of the schools will have some kind of minor wording changes to their charters to eliminate any references to the Harbor Institute," she said.

The changes must be approved by the Charter Schools Commission, but Baysinger doesn't anticipate any problems since the changes don't affect the overall school philosophy. She said the changes should be completed by the end of the year.

Anderson said that over the past two years, the institute's board of directors has looked for ways to stay open. "We gave it every shot we could to not dissolve, to see if we could get some angel investors to get us off the ground."

Over the summer, the institute continued training teachers, and it will provide services through November. It's also going ahead with what would have been the first Harbor network workshop and conference in October. Instead, it will be a goodbye party.

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