STEM Charter seeks approval

School could open in September 2011, be 3rd in Kootenai County

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COEUR d'ALENE - By this time next year, Kootenai County parents could have another charter school to consider sending their children to.

Developers of the North Idaho STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Community Charter are in the process of having the school's charter authorized by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in Boise.

If approved, the school will open its doors in September 2011, and become the third charter school in Kootenai County.

It will be located in Rathdrum, although the facilities plans have not yet been finalized.

"There are a couple of different possibilities right now," said Scott Thomson.

Thomson and his wife, Colleen, both Spirit Lake Elementary School teachers, have been working on creating the school for the past year, but the seed was planted some time ago.

"We started being approached by parents, parents interested in choice for their students," Colleen said. "The school that we're envisioning would give students a different way to learn than what we're doing presently."

The STEM education movement has been gaining momentum throughout the country in recent years.

"Our mission is to prepare these kids to be successful citizens in a technological age," Colleen said.

The school will be project- and inquiry-based, she said. Students will be expected to give presentations on their learning experiences, be able to speak about their projects with the main focus on science, math, engineering and the use of technology.

Reading, language and social studies won't be left out. Idaho state standards for all subjects will be met, and students will be subject to state assessments.

Character education will also be an important piece of the program, Colleen said, because it fosters a learning environment that is safe, supportive and successful.

As a public charter school, North Idaho STEM will be free and available to all students in Idaho, so the Thomsons expect students from throughout the region to enroll.

And they will serve pupils of all ability levels.

In the classroom, Colleen said they see innovative learning opportunities are often available only to students at the higher end of the achievement curve.

"There are those other kids that need a chance too, and they need that different niche," Colleen said.

For educators developing charter schools, the main appeal is more autonomy, freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools, in exchange for increased accountability for student achievement.

"We worked for the Lakeland district for years, and we have absolutely the highest regard for Lakeland, but this opportunity came up and we believe in school choice. We think this is an excellent opportunity for kids, so we have really pursued this," Colleen said.

Each of the Thomsons has a master's degree in educational leadership. Scott has taught at Spirit Lake Elementary for 11 years, and Colleen has been there for 18.

Their goal, Scott said, is to create citizens who will be successful, and make it possible for the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge.

"I think we're seeing the backlash, in many ways, of becoming a society that's gotten kind of used to having it good," Scott said. "I think we need that hunger again. We need to prepare our fish to swim in a bigger pond, so to speak, because we're competing with China, India, Brazil and Russia. Quite frankly, right now, the momentum is on their side and we need to do something to catch up."

Colleen said it's also about motivating kids and helping them understand the joy and excitement of discovery, the thrill of completing a project and being able to communicate about it.

"Instead of going to the store to buy an iPod, they need to learn how to make one, and learn how to make the next generation of one, and stop relying on India and China to do all that. We can do it here," Scott said.

The proposed charter school will not be on the grounds of a new youth science center being built on 80 acres along Highway 41 just north of Rathdrum. The STAR (Science, Technology and Research) Center is a project of the nonprofit North Idaho Discovery Association, co-founded by Post Falls business owners Paul and Lorna Finman.

Through NIDA, the Finmans support dozens of North Idaho school-based teams involved in science, robotics and tech challenges as well as offering summer camps, internships and scholarships aimed at hooking young people into science and technology.

Although the proposed charter school is separate and independent from the science center, Lorna Finman sits on the North Idaho STEM board.

"With her experience, Lorna is a wealth of information," Colleen said.

Finman will continue her activities on behalf of all schools in the area, the Thomsons said.

"It's in keeping with her vision of enrichment for kids," Scott said. "She's educating North Idaho that this kind of thing is possible, and it's possible for so many kids."

Other board members include: Cathy Richardson, a Spirit Lake resident with accounting, auditing, systems and financial analysis experience; Dan Tesulov, a former Rathdrum City Council member and real estate business co-owner; Darrell Richardson, who holds a master's degree in engineering and currently teaches at Gonzaga; and, the Thomsons.

The North Idaho STEM Community Charter's petition was heard by the state's charter school commission in April, and it is on the commission's agenda for a second hearing and possible authorization in September.


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