It's the beginning of the day at Juniper Ridge Community School, and the 24 students in Blythe Rusling's second-grade class are singing.
They sing about numbers, left and right, days of the week, day and night, and the seasons.
Some students have the wiggly, unfocused energy of childhood that makes it difficult to stand still for longer than a minute, but with the rest of the class singing, it's hard to draw anyone into distraction.
"One for the golden sun, two for the night and day, three for me, for here I find strong limbs, dear heart and a clear true mind," the students sing.
The walls are bright yellow, with a watercolor quality that indicates they were hand-painted. A candle flickers at the front of the classroom as students wave and wiggle in tandem. Mugs for water hang from pegs on the wall and student paintings plaster the walls. With the decorations, plants, natural lighting and watercolor walls, the classroom could easily be someone's living room.
Juniper Ridge is unlike any other school in District 51, and its teachers and administrators are proud of the school's unique approach to education, which is based on child development and incorporates a lot of art, music and hands-on skills.
Juniper Ridge is also the fastest- growing public school in Mesa County. Enrollment has nearly doubled since the school opened in 2013, from 159 students to 303 students in 2016.
The only Waldorf school in Mesa County offers a microcosm of what's happening in the region and across the state: Charter schools are expanding at a rate that outpaces their traditional school counterparts. Three of the four charter schools that were open before this year in Mesa County have grown in enrollment by at least 13 percent over the past five years, compared to 1.7 percent growth in School District 51 overall during that same period. A fifth charter school opened this fall.
While charter schools are growing for a number of reasons, according to state and local officials, it comes down to choice. From four-day school weeks to mandatory art classes, learning Latin in kindergarten to alternative education philosophies, charter schools offer different options than many traditional public schools.
"We've become a generation of consumers," said Kristin Trezise, head of school at Caprock Academy. "When I went to school, parents just sent their kids to the neighborhood school and that's what was expected. As they've become more sophisticated or there's become more choice in our world, people want to look and they're not going to take for granted that the neighborhood school is the best choice for their child."
JUNIPER RIDGE'S WALDORF APPROACH
For all the ways that Mesa County's charter schools distinguish themselves as something different from traditional schools, the nuts and bolts are similar.
Charter schools are public schools, funded by state education money and held to the same accountability standards as traditional schools and school districts. They are open to all students and abide by many of the same laws and regulations as other public schools.
In Mesa County, that's where the similarities start to dwindle. The five local charter schools each offer unique approaches and philosophies to educating children — different from traditional schools and from each other.
Patrick Ebel, administrative director at Juniper Ridge, said that's the reason so many parents are choosing charter schools. Ebel attributes Juniper Ridge's rapid growth to the school's Waldorf education philosophy.
"I think we're offering something different," Ebel said. "Mesa Valley has that home-school niche that they fill. Caprock and Independence offer a more traditional approach to teaching, and we offer something that's a very different approach. I think people are looking for alternatives."
Andrea Haitz had enrolled her children in traditional public, charter and private schools before Juniper Ridge opened in 2013.
"I like the options that charter schools have, specifically looking at how they can approach the teaching and curriculum," Haitz said. "It's a good balance that they have some autonomy to teach a curriculum they believe in, but it's that public school accessibility."
Haitz, who serves on Juniper Ridge's board of directors, said she specifically chose Juniper Ridge because of the Waldorf model. Since her two children started attending school here in 2013, she has watched their interest in school change from barely there to fully engaged.
"At old schools, it was, 'How was school? Fine. What did you do? Nothing.' Now they talk about story blocks and Spanish and working in the garden. It's like a whole different child," Haitz said. "Just seeing their personal responsibility of owning their own education has been amazing."
Ebel anticipates that Juniper Ridge will continue to grow. The school currently enrolls students through the 10th grade, but will keep adding grades as students age until it's a K-12 school. The school's board of directors recently approved the purchase of a 28-acre parcel of land, stretching north from the corner of Patterson Road and First Street to Horizon Place.
Juniper Ridge purchased the property for $865,000 and is tentatively planning to borrow $8 million to build a school, Ebel said. Construction is to begin next fall.
CLASSICAL EDUCATION RIGORouS AT CAPROCK
Caprock Academy could easily be confused as a high-end, private preparatory school. Students wear uniforms and start learning Latin in kindergarten and the school has a strong focus on character education.
As a K-12 state charter school, Caprock has grown steadily since it opened in 2007. There are currently 808 students enrolled, and the maximum enrollment allowed by the school's charter contract is 900 students. Trezise attributes the growth to the school's structure and academic programs.
"I think parents like the rigor of our classical education," Trezise said. "I think it makes us unique. I think parents like that we have character education and that it's more than academics. We see in this world that accountability doesn't always happen, so I think our parents are looking for their students to grow, mature and be nurtured, but also to be accountable with their learning."
Classical education focuses on learning in three stages — grammar, logic and rhetoric. The grammar stage is about learning facts and ideas, logic is about finding out the "why?" and rhetoric is learning to discuss and defend a body of knowledge.
Caprock staff and teachers are intent on providing a well-rounded education, which means learning about art as well as reading Plato.
The push for excellence is what eighth-grade student Logan Svaldi likes most about the school.
Logan has attended Caprock since kindergarten, and he doesn't mind the required polo shirts or high standards for learning.
"I like how tough it is, because you have to push yourself, like you would in college," he said. "And I like the uniforms, because you don't have as many distractions."
Every student at Caprock takes an art class, and Logan's class is working on abstract expressionism projects with art teacher Laura Fraver.
Logan's project is a collage of intertwining shapes and lines, and he's filling them in with brightly colored permanent markers.
Logan attends Caprock because that's what his parents chose for him, and parental involvement, according to Trezise, is instrumental in the school's success.
On average, charter schools receive about 80 percent of the funding that traditional district schools receive, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, which is primarily because school districts are not required to share local mill levy revenue with charters.
That will change in 2019, thanks to a bill passed by the Colorado Legislature in May that requires school districts to share mill levy revenue with charter schools.
To make up for the current funding gap, Caprock asks parents to volunteer 40 to 80 hours every year, from mowing the lawn in the summer to working in the front office and making copies.
"Our parents believe in what we're doing, so when their students see them supporting the school and volunteering, it helps them understand the value of their education and they help our dollars stretch," Trezise said. "We can devote our resources in different ways."
Trezise said the school will likely build new classroom additions in the next few years to replace outdated modular buildings, but there are no plans to expand the school beyond the 900-student attendance limit.
HOMESCHOOL COMMUNITY AT MESA VALLEY
Parent involvement is also instrumental at Mesa Valley Community School, though in a much different way. Mesa Valley combines the independence of homeschooling with the benefits of public school, according to Administrative Director Laurajean Downs. It's a K-12 district charter school that focuses on parent-driven education — the parent is the teacher.
But parents and students also meet with advisers at least once a month to check in, and there are support services for students who need tutoring or have a learning disability. Students also take state standardized tests to measure their learning.
Mesa Valley is the only charter school in Mesa County that has experienced declining enrollment in the past five years, which Downs said is because the school switched from a district program to a charter school. Enrollment has declined by 13 percent over five years, with the biggest drop occurring in 2014, the first year that Mesa Valley was a charter school.
"I think families thought that we were going to have to change so much that we would no longer be the school they enjoyed," Downs said.
Enrollment has stayed roughly the same since then, rising and falling by a handful of students every year.
Mesa Valley isn't looking to grow in enrollment beyond 400 students, Downs said, mainly because Mesa Valley is only a viable education option for a small number of families in Mesa County.
"We have to have somebody with a mom or dad at home to provide the education, and that's a limited base to draw from," Downs said. "You've got to have a ton of parental involvement."
There are usually a few families every year who enroll at Mesa Valley and end up switching schools within a few months because it's too hard.
Downs said once families get through the first few months of adjusting to a homeschool education, Mesa Valley offers unparalleled flexibility for parents and students, including up to $2,000 per student to reimburse education expenses and some of the same benefits of traditional public school.
High school students can take classes at local high schools, Western Colorado Community College or Colorado Mesa University. All students have the option of learning at home, taking a class at Mesa Valley, private tutoring or community classes organized and taught by other families.
While Mesa Valley isn't looking to grow much in enrollment, the school is looking for a location that's better-suited for a school.
Currently, Mesa Valley is located in a converted call center next to the Interstate 70 Business Loop, with no outdoor space other than a parking lot. High school students who come here for classes usually spend down time in a room that used to be a staff lounge. Downs would like to see the school move to a location with more space, indoors and outdoors, for students to hang out, study or wait for their next class.
EXPERIENTIAL FOCUS FOR INDEPENDENCE ACADEMY
Like Juniper Ridge and Caprock, Independence Academy has grown at a rate that far outpaces the enrollment growth of District 51. Since 2012, the school has increased in enrollment by 38 percent, from 294 students to 408 students.
The K-8 district charter school focuses on experiential learning, according to Interim Executive Director Damon Lockhart, meaning that teachers teach mainly through experiences and projects.
Lockhart said there's not necessarily one thing that draws parents to Independence, but a combination of factors.
"Families need choices to meet the needs of students," Lockhart said. "It could be that the four-day calendar week is best for a family's working situation, it could be a student's focus on art or our small classroom sizes."
Lockhart attributes Independence Academy's growth to an increase in parents wanting education options.
"It's really about choice. Each of the charter schools has something unique to their operation," Lockhart said. "I think it's a cultural thing, that when they come here they stay here because they like the experience."
The school's enrollment growth has already spurred one major change — the school moved into a new, $4.9 million home at 675 29 Road in 2015.
Lockhart said in the short term, Independence Academy is not looking to expand far beyond its current enrollment, mainly because of space constraints. Every grade already has two classes, and most grades have a waiting list.
"We're at capacity right now, and in the short term we want to continue to serve our current population," Lockhart said.
Lockhart said the school has been approached about the possibility of adding another round of classes to every grade, but there aren't adequate facilities or funding to add nine classrooms.
Instead, Lockhart wants to add more technology to classrooms and eventually expand the school's performing arts facilities to include an auditorium for drama and choir performances.
"It's a controlled growth," Lockhart said. "You want to be successful and to keep the students at the center."
MONTESSORI OPTION FOR EARLY EDUCATION
With four charter schools in the Grand Valley experiencing rapid growth and also with limited space, it was a matter of time before a new school opened.
Monument View Montessori opened in August as a K-3 state charter school, with 40 students going to school in a converted meeting hall in Fruita.
Shelby Mumby, president of the school's board of directors, enrolled her children in Monument View when it was a private preschool program.
"We were looking for a preschool program to jump-start my middle child's education before he headed to kindergarten. He went to a school here in Fruita we were not happy with, so we got involved with Monument View," Mumby said.
Montessori schools focus education on a child's psychological development, Mumby said, from learning life skills as a preschooler who wants to be part of a community, to looking to peers to solve problems in elementary school.
Mumby said she chose to stay with Monument View because she has seen her child flourish there.
"I saw the amount of growth and everything he has learned in such a short amount of time," Mumby said. "It gives the child more freedom to learn how they learn, instead of being told, 'This is how you're going to do it because this is how school runs.' "
HOW CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE DIFFERENT
For all the options that charter schools offer to students and parents, they come with some caveats.
Charter schools can request waivers from the state Board of Education and Department of Education for certain laws and requirements that apply to traditional public schools, including a waiver that allows charter schools to hire teachers who are not licensed by the state.
Those charter schools must present a "rationale and replacement plan" to the state Board of Education with what criteria they will use to assess non-licensed teachers, and the state board can approve or deny the waiver.
Mumby said the staff at Monument View wrestled with the decision to hire licensed or non-licensed teachers during the two years it took to open the school.
"It was a concern, because we obviously want trained teachers," she said. "But to go along with our philosophy, our No. 1 priority is for them to be Montessori trained, and for that to happen they have to be teacher-certified or have a degree."
Mumby said all of the teachers at Monument View are certified teachers, either by the state of Colorado or by another state.
"Even if we had a teacher who did not have a teaching certificate, the important part of our school is the Montessori philosophy and to be Montessori trained and certified is just as important if not more important than a teaching certificate," Mumby said.
While parents sometimes ask about teacher licensure, Ebel said he has never heard from a parent who was concerned about it. Five of the 19 teachers at Juniper Ridge do not have Colorado teacher's licenses. That's similar across the state, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Approximately 75 percent of charter schoolteachers are licensed with the state Department of Education.
"I think there's misconceptions sometimes, that charter schools want to pull people off the street and put them in classrooms, but I don't think that's the purpose behind that (waiver). It gives us the freedom to go out and find people who are qualified, who have the skills but maybe haven't gone through the process of licensure," Ebel said.
Ebel said hiring unlicensed teachers is often a sore point for people who are not in favor of charter schools.
"Our qualification requirement for teachers is very high, but it's a choice by parents as well," Ebel said.
Charter schools across Colorado are also growing faster than their traditional school counterparts, according to Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
Not only are more students going to charter schools, but an average of 13 new charter schools open yearly in Colorado.
"We have continued to see strong growth across the state," Schaller said. "A lot of it comes down to wanting more options and wanting more possibilities for what different types of schools can offer for their students."
Schaller said while charter schools across Colorado are expected to continue to grow, it likely won't be at the same rate as the past five years.
"I think there's a pent-up demand for more options for kids, and from that perspective I do think we'll continue to see some growth as parents are looking for more alternative options for their kids," he said. "That said, demographic trends are real and we're seeing a slow down in the school-age population. We are not immune to that, and that's the countervailing source that we will be confronting."