A typical class at Alturas International Academy looks more like three classes happening simultaneously. One table of students might be paying attention to the teacher, who’s using a whiteboard to help instruct them. Another could be using laptops to work together on a group project while a third table works through an activity book in pairs.
That scattered approach is all part of the plan for the school. Both teachers and students can take time to get accustomed to the school’s unique format but say the approach helps students learn more effectively and develop into better citizens.
“We aren’t just another charter school. This is the way education is trying to go in the future and we want to lead that,” said Michelle Ball, the school’s executive director and co-founder.
A central piece of that model was officially put in place earlier this year. Alturas had its Primary Years Program for elementary school students certified in June, making it the first International Baccalaureate program certified in eastern Idaho and one of three officially certified programs in the state. The school also is on track to have its Middle Years Program certified for sixth- through eighth-graders next year.
Alturas International Academy opened in 2016 and operated for a year in the Boy Scouts of America-owned building, south of Sunnyside Road on Yellowstone Highway, before moving into its current location at the O.E. Bell building for the 2017 school year. The school currently has 452 students enrolled and Ball said another 400 are on the waiting list to get in next year.
International Baccalaureate is a global program that began in Switzerland in 1968. The high school-level classes count for many of the same advanced credits as AP classes, but all grade levels of the program places a wider emphasis on the intangibles of learning and preparing students to be part of a global community.
“I like learning a new language. It’s cool to learn about other countries,” said Isaac Karroum, 9, during his Spanish class. The International Baccalaureate program requires a foreign language credit for all students, so Alturas begins teaching students Spanish at a young age.
Most of the classrooms at Alturas contain a poster listing the 10 features of an International Baccalaureate “learner profile.” The list pushes students to be inquirers, thinkers, communicators, risk-takers and balanced. Banners in the hallways outline six broad themes that are woven between the classes including “who we are,” “how we express ourselves” and “how the world works.”
Alturas’ grade levels are more fluid than those at the majority of other schools. Students take each class at the level they currently test at, whether that’s ahead of or behind where they’re expected to be. The school offers ninth-grade level courses for the advanced middle school students and lets struggling students repeat the same year of a certain course.
“Those students start really liking school again because they aren’t frustrated, and that really brings down our number of behavior problems as well,” Principal Brian Bingham said.
Those splits can vary between subjects for the same student. Eleven-year-old Jocelyn Hansen is taking a math course that’s above her grade level and a reading course that is below it. She said she doesn’t mind being partnered with her younger brother on reading assignments because it helps them both improve.
“You get to talk and work together, and we have a lot of teachers to ask when we need help,” Jocelyn said.
To make the students at different levels feel more connected, multiple grades and levels will be taught in the same classroom at the same time. Teacher and Primary Years Program coordinator Dayna Crose will have her classes split into groups working simultaneously at second-, third- and fourth-grade levels.
“We can do that because they’re able to work at their best level all day long. They are never not learning,” Crose said.
Most classrooms don’t have a teacher’s desk, encouraging the teacher to constantly move between groups and directly help as many students as they can during each class. Friday is a workday for the teachers, allowing them to collaborate on planning classes and make sure new teachers don’t get lost in the new system.
Helping in many rooms are a student aide, parent volunteer or both. Katie Butcher has four kids attending Alturas and volunteers with one of the elementary school classes at least once a week. Sitting at one of the tables in Robin Papaioannou’s class while her daughter works through a reading assignment, she said the school’s model appealed to her and her children.
“Having the small groups and class sizes really helps them. They get a better understanding of what happens all over the world,” Butcher said.
Alturas plans to keep expanding the school to meet the demand of the area. Ball said a high school is in the early stages of being added so students can receive and International Baccalaureate diploma and earn college credits while at the school. Other schools in the region have also come by to see how the style of teaching works for its students.