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Alternative school wins charter status from district.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - Blue Mountain School already resembled a charter school, and beginning in the fall it will officially be one.

In a 6-1 vote Monday, the South Lane School District approved a charter contract with Blue Mountain, which opened as a publicly funded, private alternative school in 1998, a year before a state law allowed public charter schools in Oregon.

Modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, Blue Mountain offers entirely self-directed learning. There are no formal classes, tests or grades, not even any teachers in the traditional sense of the word. Students - it currently has about 50 in grades kindergarten through 12 - are free to decide when, how and if they want to learn.

The change in the school's status has little impact on the district, Assistant Superintendent Colt Gill said. Funding works about the same way for charter schools as it does with private alternative programs: the district keeps about 20 percent of the state's per-pupil allocation and sends the rest to the school.

But becoming a charter school means big change - mostly positive - for the school, Blue Mountain co-founder Lesley Stine said.

For starters, Blue Mountain will receive $300,000 in a federal charter school grant, on top of the $50,000 planning grant it already spent. The money, intended to help schools start up, can't be used for day-to-day operations, but it can be used for building improvements and classroom materials - both of which are badly needed, Stine said.

For example, she said, the school needs computers, books and musical instruments, as well as major building repairs and renovations.

More important over the long term, though, is the school's ability now to accept students from anywhere. As a private alternative school, students could enroll only with a referral from their home school district, and only if that home district had a contract with Blue Mountain. Because of that, a majority of students came from the Cottage Grove area.

"We're a 'choice' school. We're not a referral school," Stine said, adding that the school has students enrolled for next year from out of the district and the state. "We're a democratic, student-directed school that people seek out and find all over the world."

The South Lane School Board turned down Blue Mountain's initial proposal, submitted in January. Among the concerns were the lack of a well-defined "curriculum map" that helps students chart a state-recommended course of learning; the school's ability to identify and assist low-achieving students; and insufficient assurance that young children had adequate supervision, Gill said. The board also wanted assurance that students would be encouraged to take Oregon Statewide Assessment tests.

After working closely with district staff and its own students, staff and parents, Blue Mountain was able to modify the proposal and satisfy staff and the board majority.

Despite having greater oversight and more defined expectations, Stine believes Blue Mountain can stay true to the democratic model.

"It's a complicated model that we're involved in, and it's very different than what anybody's used to," she said.

The next step is working out a contract with Blue Mountain. Gill said his concern is ensuring an appropriate education for special education students, which remains the responsibility of a student's home district even at a charter school.

Blue Mountain is South Lane's second charter school. Last August, the board approved a charter for Child's Way, a school for struggling middle school students that also already had been operating as an alternative program.
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Title Annotation:Schools; South Lane's approval means a federal grant for Blue Mountain School
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 9, 2004
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