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A Private Matter: More Idaho Parents Turning Toward Private Schools

113 private schools educate nearly 12,000 students

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Thousands of Idaho parents have made their choice. For one reason or another--maybe a greater emphasis on math and science, or more focus on culture and the arts, possibly their child needs remedial help in basic skills--an increasing number of families are passing on their neighborhood public schools, quite literally, and steering their carpools toward charter or private schools.

Idaho lists 44 charter schools, educating more than 16,000 Gem State students.

"We definitely believe that school choice is critical," said Melissa McGrath, Idaho State Department of Education's communications director.

Charters are still a fairly recent phenomenon. Springing from 1998's Idaho Charter School Law, a total of 49 charter schools opened over 14 years. Five have since closed. In 1999, fewer than 1 percent of Idaho school children attended charters. In 2011, it was closer to 6 percent. Southwest Idaho houses the lion's share of charter schools, 19, drawing the second-highest number, 6, in the Idaho Falls area.

In fact, Idaho is embarking on what McGrath called "a second generation" for public charters.

"For instance, there's Wings Academy in the Twin Falls area, specifically designed for students who are struggling in traditional middle school," said McGrath. "At Wings, the students receive focused attention in those middle-school years and then transition back into a traditional public high school."

The Idaho State Department of Education gladly provides volumes of information to parents regarding Idaho's charter school phenomenon. But when it comes to private schools, the shelves are bare.

"We have very little data [on private schools] at the state level," said McGrath. "They're not really required to report anything to us."

Yet more Idaho parents than ever before are opting for private institutions. And in spite of a staggering recession that still has many families struggling to balance a budget, more parents are shelling out thousands of dollars for private-school tuition for a more tailored approach to education.

But if parents are looking to state officials to score successes or struggles at private academies, they're out of luck.

"When we do test comparisons of how students are performing, we don't include private schools," said McGrath.

So, that leaves it up to the schools to tell their own story and to parents to determine if that's worth the investment.

Boise Weekly visited Meridian's Challenger School campus, a rapidly growing private school already offering classes for preschoolers through the fifth grade, with plans to add grades six, seven and eight in the next three years. And it's a school system that proudly wears its success on its uniformed sleeves, pointing to stellar test scores. But equally important is the school's culture, which its headmaster confirms is "very, very conservative."

High Marks

Karren Farnsworth, headmaster of Meridian's Challenger School, was anxious to present her students' test scores, reaching for a multi-color visual aid that she shares with potential parents.

"I'll show you right here," said Farnsworth, pointing to a series of bar graphs tracking 2012 Iowa Test Scores of Basic Skills. (The Idaho State Department of Education scores public students in grades three through 10 using Idaho Standards Achievement Tests.)

Farnsworth said Challenger's average kindergartner outscored 98 of 100 Iowa test takers at his or her grade level in other private schools around the nation. The average eighth-grader outscored 99 of 100.

"Parents always want to know what makes us different," she said.

And for the better part of an hour, Farnsworth extolled Challenger's differences: its teaching staff, traditional teaching methods and something she called the school's "values core."

"We're very, very conservative," said Farnsworth. "We're based on how the founders saw America. We're just very honest, rational thinkers."

Farnsworth has been with the Challenger school system--there are 25 schools in five Western states--since 2006. Following a stint teaching eighth-graders at a Meridian Middle School, which she called "an eye-opener," Farnsworth served as preschool director for Challenger's pre-K and kindergarten school on State Street in Boise. In 2008, she was offered the position of headmaster when Challenger decided to build a Meridian campus, including preschool through eighth grade.

They start them young at Challenger. Tiny mannequins modeling uniforms for toddlers greet visitors to the school's lobby.

"In fact, the little ones are our strength," said Farnsworth. "They come in here and learn to read at the age of 3, and they're great readers by the age of 4."

Farnsworth estimated that the current enrollment was 350, but she expected the number to grow to 400 by the end of the school year.

Farnsworth described Challenger's learning system as a blend of traditional classroom methods, integrating what she called "conceptual thinking."

"In a typical public-school setting, you're going to see a major focus on facts, and we recognize the importance of that knowledge. But we teach the big picture," she said. "We're very focused on helping children become thinkers, reasoners, problem solvers. We teach conceptually."

Shared Values

Challenger's website says the school is "always looking for exceptional people." And when submitting a cover letter and resume, prospective teachers are asked to write "a brief essay discussing your view of America."

But April Mantha was stunned by how much politics was discussed in her job interview with Farnsworth. Mantha, who has taught preschool in Boise public and private schools, applied for a pre-K teaching position at Challenger, and she met Farnsworth for a job interview July 9.

"One of her very first questions to me was 'If you could change any form of government, what would it be?'" remembered Mantha. "It threw me for a loop."

Mantha told Boise Weekly that she really wanted the job at the time, so she told Farnsworth what she wanted to hear.

"[Challenger] pays very well, almost double my previous salary," said Mantha, who said a preschool teacher at Challenger could make $14 an hour.

Mantha answered Farnsworth's question about changing the government by saying the nation could be improved if political parties were abolished. But the political discourse only got deeper, according to Mantha.

"It was more than just her asking me questions about my teaching experience; it was her telling me how they were really against Obamacare," said Mantha. "And how, little by little, the government was taking away our freedom and choices."

Farnsworth told Boise Weekly that conservatism runs through the very fabric of the school, from the children's uniforms to their patriotic oaths.

"I tell parents that their children will say the Pledge of Allegiance and they'll sing a song about America every day," said Farnsworth. "We teach them that they were born with a right to choose their own destiny. A 3-year-old will know what that means. Those children will learn that the government is here to protect their rights, not to encroach on those rights."

Farnsworth said prior to the launch of the fall semester, teach-the-teacher trainings include a class called "liberty," focusing on the importance of the U.S. Constitution.

"We're teaching them about the concept of individual rights and what that means, vs. what a collective means," she said. "We're teaching them what individual rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness really mean."

Mantha said the next step in her job interview was to fill out a questionnaire, which Farnsworth later confirmed to BW was part of the interview process.

"I remember the last question on the test," said Mantha. "It said, 'The benefits of socialism are ...' And you're supposed to fill in the blank."

Mantha said she wrote that there were no benefits to socialism, even though she told BW later that she didn't believe what she had written.

"And Karren Farnsworth took the paper and flipped to that very last question about socialism to see what I had written, and she said, 'Correct. You got it right. Awesome.'"

Mantha said she was given every reason to believe that she would be hired, but she was upset with herself and the answers she had given.

"I was disgusted with myself," said Mantha. "I had to tell her the truth. I told her that I wasn't expecting to teach preschoolers about socialism. I told her that there were indeed benefits to so-called socialism, like Medicaid and public libraries. Well, I could tell by her face that she wasn't happy."

Six days later, Mantha received a short letter from Farnsworth, saying thanks, but no thanks.

"We are unable to offer you employment at this time," said the letter.

Mantha said she was personally relieved and has since taken another job, teaching pre-K at another private school.

When BW asked Farnsworth about the interview, she said she couldn't recall Mantha's name but said her search for ideal teacher candidates is ongoing.

"I get a lot of applicants. It goes from a big stack down to a small stack of who we might accept," she said. "We're very selective."

And when it comes to pursuing teachers, Challenger makes it very clear that it's "looking for people who will support our philosophy," said Farnsworth.