Connie Pillsbury is an independent opinion columnist for The Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press; you can email her at email@example.com.
While parents and local school boards bicker over curriculum, masks, and mandates, a quiet and profound educational pivot is occurring behind the scenes in San Luis Obispo County. “Necessity is the mother of invention” applies here, as exponential numbers of parents are generating new and novel educational programs outside of the public school system.
Just a few of the expanding options on the leading edge of this shift are the county-wide Heartland Charter School, Almond Acres Charter Academy in Paso Robles, Learn Academy in Atascadero, Christ Classical School, and SLO Classical School in San Luis Obispo.
Heartland Charter School is a tuition-free, public independent study charter school serving kindergarten through 12th grade in nine California counties. The Heartland community is composed of homeschooling families under the guidance and direction of credentialed Heartland teachers. Its unique educational funds make it a popular choice for local parents. Each student has funds which can be applied to various local approved ‘vendors’ in the areas of fine arts, music, educational and physical activities. There are over twenty vendors just in North County, including horseback, swim, martial arts, and dance lessons along with sewing, piano, art, guitar, and tutoring.
In Paso Robles, the brand new and beautiful Almond Acres Charter School, made possible through the vision and support of its founders and local parents and donors, is open on Niblick Lane for full classroom learning for K-8 students. Focused on complementary academic instruction across all grade levels, math, science and technology focus, leadership, and fine arts, Almond Acres’s goal is to “incite a passion and desire to learn.”
Almond Acres Charter Academy opens for classes Monday at its new campus on Niblick Road. The City of Paso Robles gave the charter school permission Thursday afternoon to occupy its new building.
Almond Acres students will attend one week of school at the new campus, then go on Christmas break. They will return in early January to their new building near the intersection of Niblick and Creston Roads.
Constructions crews have worked all year to prepare the buildings for occupation and instruction. Principal Bob Bourgault hoped to get the school open in the fall, but work continued into early December. Bourgault says the floor is not complete in the gym. They hope to finish the gym by mid-January.
The $15 million dollar Almond Acres Charter Academy campus will accommodate 450 students in grades Kindergarten through 8th grade. Previously, the school was located at Lillian Larsen Elementary School in San Miguel. So far this academic year, the students attended classes at Centennial Community Center and Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation.
Staff and teachers assembled desks and other equipment in the new building this past week to prepare for opening day on Monday.
Bougault says, “We’re thrilled to finally move into our own campus. After weeks of waiting for completion, we have nearly reached our goal. It’s very exciting.”
Local businesses, families, teachers, staff, and individuals worked together to raise over $23,000 for Almond Acres Charter Academy by hosting their, Wild, Wild West Drive-Through BBQ and Online Auction. The school, which will be breaking ground this fall for their new school facility in Paso Robles, will use the funds to benefit their Project Based Learning, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), and Athletics programs.
“We typically host an annual in-person auction, but due to COVID, we decided to switch gears and hold a smaller-scale fundraiser that was safe for everyone to participate,” said event coordinator, Jenn Phillips. “What we didn’t expect was the generosity of local businesses. We know this has been an incredibly difficult year for businesses, and we feel so honored that they wanted to support the students at Almond Acres in whatever capacity they could.”
The main sponsor for the event that took place on Oct. 3, was Roots on Railroad, an eatery that opened on 13th Street and Railroad earlier this year. Other top-level sponsors included The Backyard on Thirteenth, Engineered Power Solutions, G & H Autobody, The Partridge Family Olive Company, Mechanics Bank, and Tractor Supply Company, who hosted the event in their parking lot.
Following the great success Almond Acres Charter Academy (AACA) experienced with its recent distance learning program, the school is excited to announce that it will be enrolling students in a new At Home Academy program beginning in the Fall of 2020. Being a small school allows AACA to respond to changes in the needs of their families with swiftness and AACA’s distance learning program demonstrated a strength in designing education that truly is outside the box of traditional school programs.
AACA has been providing a site based instructional program since the school began in 2012. When COVID-19 forced districts across the state to close their doors and transition to a distance learning model, AACA recognized an opportunity to expand its program offerings. When survey results reported 95% of families felt the distance learning program exceeded or greatly exceeded expectations, the AACA team felt confident in once again implementing a programmatic change.
During the distance learning program, parents were surveyed several times to gauge their feelings on the possibility of a at home option moving forward. Multiple families reported they were interested in exploring an at home option and their reasons were varied. Some expressed a long term desire to do distance learning but they were reluctant to forego the school culture and climate offered at AACA. Other families shared concerns about possible restrictions in the form of health and safety guidelines that may be in place when schools reopen. The administration examined multiple options for an at home program and created the Almond Acres At Home Academy.
The AACA At Home program will consist of instruction happening in the home while families maintain the close family/school connection that is special to AACA. Parents will be provided with comprehensive curriculum guides, training opportunities, and regular school collaboration to provide the primary instruction. Parents will also have the opportunity to participate in the Program Site Council (AACA’s equivalent to a PTO/PTA) and attend AACA’s Growing Great Kids webinars where they will learn strategies to assist with a variety of parenting scenarios.
Students in the At Home Academy will not only be using the same curriculum as their peers in the traditional model, they will also be given self directed versions of the various Service and Project Based Learning units that are a core component to AACA’s academic program. Additionally, students will be encouraged to participate in the many field trips and guest speaker presentations connected to those units.
All of the school-wide activities offered at AACA will include the families enrolled in the At Home program. Some of these include annual events such as Maker Faire, musical theatre production, 8th grade promotion, Kinder Celebration, Read Run Relay, and talent show. The families will also access a daily virtual Shared Start assembly where they will receive instruction on the Habits of Mind, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the positive behavior expectations that grow citizenship traits in all AACA students. Families will also be encouraged to attend the new Friday celebration events (awards assemblies, positive behavior reinforcer events, etc) being held twice monthly. AACA has successfully held several of these events virtually during distance learning and will continue to do so if required by safety guidelines.
In addition to these program components, families would be encouraged to participate in outside of school events. AACA hosts a Meet the Teacher Picnic before school starts and the At Home families will be introduced to the various grade level teachers, support staff, as well other AACA families. Back to School Night, Open House, and the annual Art Show will also include these families and showcase student work completed as part of the At Home Academy curriculum.
“As a small charter school, we have the ability to quickly respond and affect change. This At Home Academy will allow families to be part of our school, implement the framework and philosophy, receive guidance from staff, and still have flexibility based on their individual needs. We are able to use much of what we created and implemented during distance learning to then create this additional option.” stated Amy Baker, Program Director.
Almond Acres Charter Academy is designing this At Home program to meet the needs of its current families and any future families. If anyone is interested in exploring the At Home program now available through AACA, information can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Since AACA is a charter school, and therefore a school of choice, no interdistrict transfer is required to enroll.
Prior to the start of distance learning, seventh graders at Almond Acres Charter Academy were asking the question, “How does literacy, and understanding literature, change the world?” The students learned about the negative impact of being illiterate and the United Nations push for literacy.
As part of their study, students personally took on the responsibility of promoting literacy. They brainstormed ways they could help, investigated needs, and used real life skills to help expand literacy in a variety of ways.
Some of the students chose to improve literacy within their own school. Seventh graders, Kenichi Parkhurst and Libby Higgins, tutored kindergarteners, giving up their own recess to work with the younger students on sight words and reading, as well as providing fun, kinesthetic ways to perform word work (e.g. forming spelling words with playdough). Hannah Bourgault and TJ Dawson built and stocked a tiny share library to be installed between the kindergarten and first grade classrooms.
Moving beyond the Almond Acres campus, students Olivia Heinbach and Summer Colegrove, labelled snack cups at the Kennedy Club Fitness Children’s Center. The customized cups allowed children to review and practice sight words while enjoying a snack during their parents’ workout. Lucas Slawson built a tiny free library for his neighborhood. Lucas Vertrees filled a need by reading to younger students living at the homeless shelter.
Going well beyond our school and community, Brandon McWilliams focused on a nonprofit across the globe in Arua, Uganda. A school needed support for their literacy program.
An excerpt from the post written by Elsie Soderberg reads:
Last month we got a surprise email from a young man. His name is Brandon, and for a 7th grade class project he was studying global literacy. They were learning about how learning the simple abilities of reading and writing can change someone’s life, and in his words “As part of our study, I want to help improve literacy in the world.”
He wondered if students at Solid Rock Christian School could use books, pencils, pens, and paper to improve their literacy. If he raised money to provide those supplies, he asked, would the students be able to benefit? “Absolutely yes!” Elsie [our Director of Communications] emailed back.
So, Brandon put on his own fundraiser making jam in his family’s kitchen and selling it at school. It wasn’t fancy. All he needed was some glass jars, strawberries and sugar, and a folding table to put them on. Amazingly, by this small act of love, he raised enough for pens, paper, and English textbooks for an entire classroom!
This material outcome is a great blessing, but there’s more. Brandon is in 7th grade– the exact same age as the students who will benefit from his work. He realized that he could do something, didn’t need it to be big and glamorous, and wasn’t daunted by fear of failure. Maybe he’s teaching us- what standard do we think we need to meet before we can do something?
This style of hands-on, real life learning that is driven by the students’ natural curiosity, is called project based learning. Almond Acres takes it one step further by encouraging students to incorporate service into their studies as well.
“It brings me so much joy to see our kids learning and serving at the same time,” said Brandon’s mom, Melanie McWilliams. “They’re using creative thinking to come up with project ideas. They’re using their writing skills to email resources. They’re using their technology skills to research. They’re even using mathematics and science when they make jam or a small wooden library. Most importantly, they’re using their heart to make our schools, community, and world a better place.”