Afternoons at Crestone Charter School are a freeform business, with students wandering the halls, often shoeless but rarely purposeless.
In the middle school wing, students end the day by wiping tables and washing dishes.
“This is the triumph of my teaching,” said their teacher, Jeff “Daya” Sheide as he watched them clean.
A classroom volunteer with a guitar wrapped up his day, saying the day was spent “subtly helping [students] understand they are the hope for the great challenges to come.” When asked what future he meant, he dropped a reference to “heaven on earth” and headed out the door.
The K-12 school’s 92 students come from Crestone, a small town best known for the abundance of religious organization that call the town home. The charter comprises nearly half of Moffat Consolidated 2 School district, a small rural district in the San Luis Valley.
The school, which was one of the first charters in the state, has been a testing ground for statewide charter school debates, including school autonomy and funding issues.
Proponents of the school say it is a model for school choice in rural districts, but its critics — who once included the district’s school board — accused the school of funneling money away from the district school.
Rural charter schools exist around the state, although they are not common. The schools often open as a strategy to serve students in isolated communities, far from district facilities.
But in Crestone, cultural divides, rather than geographic challenges, motivated the school’s opening.
“We have two very different communities,” said Kirk Banghart, the district’s superintendent. “One I term the valley floor, which is [primarily] ranching.” The other, he said, is Crestone and a nearby subdivision called Baca Grande. Together they make up nearly two-thirds of the district’s population.
Crestone, which is a former mining community, is now a religious center, housing spiritual communities ranging from Carmelite monks to several Buddhist sects. The religious organizations came here beginning in the late 1970s after a wealthy philanthropist, Hanna Strong, donated land for the use of any religious organization that wished to have some.
To date, 22 groups have responded to her call.
“A lot of the reason people come here is for practice,” said Michael Hayes, who heads the charter school.
That group of religious migrants saw a need for different kind of education, Hayes said.
Spiritual practice is incorporated into the school’s day-to-day operations, although Hayes is quick to note that no practice is required and any spirituality is non-denominational.
Students may start the day with meditation or Reiki, a Japanese stress reduction practice. It’s part of the school’s unusual education model, which combines traditional academic instruction with experiential learning and non-traditional practices that reflect the community’s spiritual values.
“In general, we focus on more traditional academics in the morning,” said Hayes. Afternoons are reserved for the school’s less traditional activities, such as bringing in a storyteller for language arts instruction.
By contrast, the district’s traditional school, 13 miles down the road, serves grades P-12 but follows a more familiar educational program. Most of the district’s special needs students and English language learners attend the district-run school. The two schools perform similarly on state rankings.
The co-existence of the two schools give parents options, even in the smallest of rural districts, said Hayes.
“What it really is about is choice,” said Hayes.
The choice Hayes touts was hard-fought. The school board tried to block the school’s opening in 1996, just three years after the state opened the door to charters. The board tried to revoke the school’s charter twice, claiming the charter was draining funding from the district school.
“The school board actively tried to shut down the school,” said Hayes.
Both organizations appeared repeatedly before state policymakers to hash out their disputes. The school appealed successfully to the state board each time.
The fights brought out divisions in the small community between the Crestone community and the more traditional ranching families of Moffat. In a recent profile of the school by the Idaho Charter Schools Network, one Crestone supporter remembers finding her tires slashed after board meetings.
But over time, relations between the school and district warmed. Recent collaborations on funding and accountability signal how far things have come.
The community’s biggest success came in 2009, when taxpayers passed a district-wide bond measure that provided the matching funds required for Crestone Charter to receive a state grant for a new building.
According to state analysts, it was a move that was not only ground-breaking for collaboration within the Moffat school district but for district-charter school collaboration statewide.
“It’s a very unique situation,” said Kevin Huber, a regional manager for the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant program that provided the funding. “I can only think of one other project that used bond money [for charter schools].”
Most matching funds for charter school projects come from private fundraising or the school’s cash reserves. In Crestone’s case, all of the matching funds came from district taxpayers.
Since that bond measure passed, taxpayers have passed a second to overhaul the district school and a mill levy to provide additional funding for both schools.
“We’re too small to be divisive,” said Banghart, who joined the district in 2010. “Part of my goal has been to heal the wounds of that separation.”
According to Hayes, Banghart’s efforts are sincere.
“Kirk is really good at not saying us and them,” said Hayes. But tensions still linger at the edges. “Our teachers, they don’t mix so much. The kids do, somewhat.”
The charter and district have decided to pool resources to deal with state mandates — they share a single district-wide accountability committee, for example, and meet on a regular basis to strategize for the district as a whole.
National charter advocates and rural education experts have spotlighted schools like Crestone’s as a way to provide choices in areas where parents don’t have a wide range of nearby educational options.
It’s a position Hayes supports. “We really believe this educational model fits a lot of students and fits this community,” he said.
He believes that the district could serve as a model for others, although rural charters face an uphill battle.
“The reason this stands here is due to the efforts of under ten people,” Hayes said. “It’s not somebody out there doing this. It [could be] you.”