Several weeks ago I had the very unique and wonderful opportunity to be a judge on a couple of passage panels at the Pocatello Community Charter School.
Prior to the passage panels, Marjanna Hulet, one of my all time favorite people in Pocatello, emailed and asked if I would be willing to do this. She has been for some time "talking up" the school to me and I have been immensely curious what it is exactly that goes on there so this was my chance and I jumped at it.
My first impression as I walked into the building was simple amazement. Each of the students I encountered were very polite, helpful, and pleasant. The PCCS is one that requires uniforms, though they appear casual and unlike many uniform-enforced rules at other schools, they have options in their attire and the students don't appear to be at annoyed by the uniforms. Students who don't complain about uniforms? Yes, it's true.
The charter school was very organized in how they were doing these passage panels (presentations given on the work each of the students have done for the year) and had assigned judges to specific rooms. I was a bit early and had plenty of time to observe as I waited in the hall for the panels I would be attending. Next to me in the hallway sat a young man, second-grader, who was very nervous for his panel. He kept looking at his watch which I found hilarious mostly because I'm twenty-two years old and I've never in my life worn a watch! I asked him for the time and spoke with him about his panel. He explained to me each aspect of his presentation, well rehearsed, and surprised me with how bright he was for such a young age.
One of the projects going on school-wide this year was an exploration of the history of Pocatello. In the classroom where I was judging presentations there was a time line of Pocatello with great articles from the Idaho State Journal. I thought it was wonderful that the school had taken advantage of the great historical pieces that had been appearing in the paper about Pocatello and the railroad. The classroom I was in was very well organized, typical of that age group, and the teacher was phenomenal. Her name escapes me now, but she carefully explained to me (the newbie) how the panels worked and gave me a little background on the children I would be encountering. As I sat there I pondered in my mind how much the younger version of me would have enjoyed being in that classroom participating in those activities, even the presentation itself.
I was scheduled for two passage panels, one with a second-grader and one with a sixth-grader. The first student came in with her parents and was absolutely a riot. Very cute, very bright, and very prepared. I was so impressed! One of the projects her age group had undertaken was a personal time line. She had to make a time line of her own, very short, life and did a wonderful job of addressing the major events in her life (i.e. her birth, her brother's birth, and picking berries with her uncle). The second student was equally bright, a bit unorganized, but quick to respond to our questions. What impressed me most about his is that as a sixth-grader he already had an idea of his strengths and weaknesses and wasn't shy to express his love for math and disdain for reading. These are things students need to realize right away or they will spend their entire schooling struggling with one while excelling in the other. He commented that he had put in a great deal of work on a report because he knew he wasn't good at writing. His math portfolio was nothing short of amazing. At his age he was doing algebra that I'm not even capable of doing now and even better yet he was enjoying it! Something that struck me with both students was how seriously they took these presentations and how prepared they were.
After the two presentations I spoke briefly with the teacher whose classroom I was scheduled in and she told me about the waiting list for the school and the success rate of their students.
As I was leaving the school I couldn't help but notice the number of teachers who had tracked down their own students who were giving their presentations. Each of the teachers were genuinely interested in their success and even a few of them were talking to the teachers in the classrooms where the presentations were being conducted. Their pride in each of those students surprised me. There were many parents attending their children's presentations and you could tell by their nervousness that they were very involved in their children's education and growth. The parents seemed to be very aware of each of the projects going on and many of them had spent quality time in those classrooms helping out.
I suppose the way to best describe the entire setting is with the concept of community. The Pocatello Community Charter School really incorporates all aspects of the community in the way they educate these children. Parents, teachers, and community members all participate in these passage panels as they must also do with the every day goings-on at the school.
When I left PCCS the day of the passage panels I sat in my car for a long while contemplating how different my public education was in comparison to the education being offered at PCCS. Those students are challenged in ways I never was. They have a framework of support that I didn't have at that age. And you could see their individual growth. Very bright kids who had come a very long way to be as grounded and put together as they were in the moment they gave those presentations.
Whatever reservations I had going into the situation--not reservations about PCCS specifically, but charter schools in general--were completely erased in this opportunity. Perhaps in the bigger picture I have always understood the need for charter schools in large urban areas and never really understood the need in rural areas where education on the whole was decent, but following this experience I see the merits of charter schools in any setting.
My sincere thanks to Marjanna Hulet for the wonderful opportunity and my complete respect and appreciate to the students I encountered who opened my eyes to a whole new world of education. If any of you are in Pocatello and have the chance to be judges on these panels next year or just have the opportunity to be in the school for whatever reason, jump at it. You won't regret it.