By Matthew Varcak (@MVarcak)
SAINT HELEN — In the heart of Saint Helen, Mich., a one-stoplight town of around 3,000 residents, stands the Charlton Heston Academy. It is a public charter school, formed by a grassroots organization, that opened its doors in the fall of 2012 and is attracting students from surrounding communities.
In less than a year, the academy has become St. Helen’s largest employer — and the most talked about subject in town since Heston was in Hollywood.
Charter schools have become commonplace in big cities, such as Detroit and Chicago, where non-profit organizations, universities and corporations have stepped in to help struggling school systems. But you might not expect to find one in the Northern Lower Peninsula — and one named for a famous actor, to boot.
Here’s how this school came to life. Five years ago, schools in the Gerrish-Higgins School District, which includes St. Helen, sought to upgrade their facilities, so voters approved a $14 million millage in May, 2008. The 35-year-old Saint Helen Elementary School was one of these buildings.
“It was our impression that if Saint Helen showed support by voting the millage through, our school was going to stay here,” said Jennifer Jarosz, president of the CHA board of directors.
But in September 2009, the Roscommon Area Public Schools (which took over the GHSD) announced that the elementary school would close, due to low enrollment.
“There was really no negotiating their decision,” Jarosz said. “They were not going to change their mind. Every person in this town felt betrayed by what happened. We just knew that we were not going to settle for it.”
After learning of the board’s decision, Rural Education Matters, a nonprofit organization consisting of parents, business owners and concerned citizens, was established, with Jarosz as its leader.
“We began looking for options right away,” Jarosz said. “We knew our community would not survive without a school.”
After receiving a grant from the Michigan Department of Education to begin the process of establishing a curriculum and school plan, REM hit a roadblock when searching for an authorizer. A university, community college or public system needs to endorse the idea before the school can open.
“It wasn’t that we weren’t worthy,” Jarosz said. “The demand was very high for charter schools.”
At the time, the state of Michigan limited the number of charter schools that could be authorized by universities to 150. The St. Helen group found it self competing with more than 50 other applicants, some with 400 students. By contrast, REM’s 250 potential students seemed far less appealing.
On November 2, 2011, Jarosz appeared before the state House Education Committee hoping to persuade the board to lift the cap on charter schools. She cited the overcrowding, underperformance and distance of the Roscommon Area Public Schools, which took in the St. Helen students, as reasons the Saint Helen community deserved a charter school.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 618 into law in Dec. 2011, eliminating the cap on charter schools.
A few months later, REM’s application was approved by Lake Superior State University in March, 2012, ending a two-year search to find a sponsor.
“At the time, we didn’t know that this had never been done by citizens in a community in the way that we had done it,” Jarosz said.
And, after more than two years of sitting vacant, the building formerly known as St. Helen’s Elementary School reopened as the Charlton Heston Academy this past September. Heston, who starred in movies such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, lived in St. Helen for part of his childhood, and is considered the town’s most famous former resident.
Two hundred forty seven students, from pre-school to eighth grade, are currently enrolled at the academy. Some travel more than 20 miles to school from northern communities such as like Houghton Lake, Roscommon and Rose City. Their school day is 90 minutes longer than a traditional student’s, and they do not have a three-month summer break in an effort to avoid what experts call “summer learning loss.”
This extra time adds up. According to CHA Superintendent David Patterson, it means around 30 percent more instructional time over the course of a calendar year.
“We are not going to take a textbook and rush through that curriculum just to be compliant,” Patterson said. “We are going to stop and get students to master those skills. If that means we do not get all the way through the textbook by June, so be it. We still have July and August to finish.”
With an instructor for every 12 students, teachers are able to offer more individualized attention. In the hallway that holds kindergarten through second grade classrooms, kindergarten teacher Ashley VanGorden helps a group of five boys distinguish real words from make believe words. In a quiet classroom, Lisa McLeod, a teaching assistant and registered nurse, works through a grammar quiz with three students.
“We believe in mastery,” Patterson said. “If a student is above grade level or excelling in a particular area, we are looking to have these students use blended learning, incorporating online courses to prepare them even more.”
Like all Michigan public schools, CHA offers education for those with special needs, and students are required to take the standard Michigan Educational Assessment Program test in the fall. Unlike traditional schools, students must also complete three more assessment tests in an academic year.
It is not all work at CHA, however.
Krystal LaPorte’s third grade class takes a “brain break,” a 20-minute intermission where students can “drive their own instruction” by reading to themselves or others, or by enjoying quiet time. In the gymnasium, students step out of their uniforms and into gym clothes and onto the court to play “Kingpin,” a modified version of dodgeball.
With no clubs or programs in place at inception, it was up to CHA students to shape their school. An art club, archery club, science explorers program, competitive cheer and dance team, and student newspaper, The Time of the Patriot, have already been formed, and students are writing a school anthem.
“As we get a group of students who are interested in something, we try our best to launch that program,” Patterson said.
Students are required to dress in khaki pants or shorts and a polo shirt. Kindergarten through second grade students must wear blue polo shirts, third-fifth graders wear red and sixth-eighth graders wear white.
“The dress code took the most planning in the beginning,” Patterson said. “It was a foreign concept to children, parents and community members. Now it is the norm.”
With 85 percent of students qualifying for reduced price meals and 75 percent qualifying for free meals under federal guidelines, CHA recognized that some families might have trouble affording the new uniforms. Along with donations from community members in the form of money and clothing, $2,500 of the annual budget was set aside to assist students.
“The community support and the parent involvement is pound-for-pound, the thickest I have seen at any school district,” Patterson said.
The school gives back to the community too.
The building is used to host Family Zumba nights and events for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In the future, the hope is to offer open recreation nights in the gymnasium and meals for the Saint Helen community.
“This is not a public school,” said Saint Helen resident Tony Hoffman, who was a strong supporter of CHA’s development, helping maintain the grounds while the school sat vacant. “This is a community school.”
“I’ve definitely seen an increase in business since the school opened,” said Jarosz, who is also the owner of the local Hen House Restaurant. “We are starting to see more younger families coming through.” There’s a good reason: since opening last fall, the school has become the single-biggest employer in St. Helen, otherwise known for lumber.
CHA is continually growing, thanks to a policy of “rolling enrollment.” Students are added continuously to the class roster which now stands at 247 students. This fall, CHA will add grade 9; the following year grade 10 will be added. By 2016, it will be a pre-K through 12 academy.
“We are bursting at the seams in this current building,” said Patterson, the superintendent, adding, “which is a good problem to have.”
More than 10 acres of trees surrounding the 40-year-old building were recently clear-cut in order to make room for a much-needed high school building. This will add 10 new classrooms and a regulation-size gymnasium.
CHA will also soon be adding 52 desktop computers, 28 iPads and an interactive whiteboard to its already impressive array of technology. Now, each classroom will have at least two desktop computers. The iPads will be used in a separate computer lab along with some of the desktops.U
A school improvement team, led by fourth grade teacher Karrie Murray, analyzes student achievements, community input, and government requirements to move CHA forward.
“Everything here is subject to change,” Patterson said. “We are a nimble school, so we are able to make decisions quickly, but we want them to be well-informed, disciplined and focused on quality.”
Until now, St. Helen has been known best for its famous actor. But soon, it could be known for the education experiment that bears his name. “Within a couple of years, you are really going to be hearing about the Charlton Heston Academy, and not just that we opened,” Jarosz said. “If other communities face the struggles that we have, I hope we are an inspiration to them – proof that there are other options.”
Historic photos courtesy of Heritage of Richfield Township