Juneau Police Department officer John Cryderman’s neat uniform belied the controlled chaos in the hallways and classrooms of the Juneau Community Charter School on Wednesday.
It was after lunch and time for middle school exploratory classes.
With 11 students leaning into their notebooks, Cryderman held up vials of drug samples out of a black case as he taught a lesson on illicit drugs and how best to avoid them.
In a nearby wire-strewn classroom, Alaska Sports TV’s Larry Johansen worked with two seventh-graders on a video project. The trio were producing the school’s news program.
Down the hall, local artist Abel Ryan and six students occupied a large art studio, each carving a small chunk of cedar in the first steps of what would become a deer call.
“Abel, it’s like, ‘Are you able to do this?’” a student remarked, lifting his head for a moment.
“No, it’s not,” a girl named Mia corrected.
Founded in 1997, JCCS celebrates two decades of community-minded education this year. Though the students, parents and state education standards have changed, the school’s philosophy remains largely the same: it’s about small class sizes, constructivist teaching, place-based education and community engagement.
Johansen said he wouldn’t be able to run his videography class with more than six students. As a charter school, JCCS can keep class sizes down by being a little more creative with its budget. Classes at the school are capped at 22 students, with total enrollement held to 110.
Ethan Cordero, one of the seventh-graders in Johanson’s videography class, likes the small class sizes. He says some of his friends in California have as many students in their classes as JCCS has in the whole middle school, which currently has 44 students.
“It’s a little more open, a little shorter distances. I don’t have to walk 100 feet to my next class,” he said. “Since it’s a pretty small school, you pretty much know everybody.”
Cordero has attended schools in Kodiak and California. He said transitioning to JCCS has been easy.
“Once you’re here for six weeks it feels like home,” Cordero said.
JCCS has strived to emphasize what’s called a constructivist theory of teaching, school principal Caron Smith said. Basically, it amounts to letting students take the lead and “construct” their own educations. Teachers guide a student problem solving to help them arrive at their own solutions.
Instead of giving a student an equation to help solve a math problem, for instance, students are instructed to explore the patterns in a series of numbers to deduce an equation on their own, math teacher Brenda Taylor explained.
It can be a slow process, but it nurtures a love of learning and a tendency to think for oneself, she said. Answers don’t come down from an outside authority; children arrive at them themselves.
“A lot of other teachers in the district teach in a constructivist manner. A lot of STEM teaching is leaning this way,” Taylor said. “Start with a phenomenon: ‘Woh, what happened? Why? What do you think?’ It’s encouraging kids to ask questions and think for themselves.”
Taylor has to make sure that, at the end of the process, her students’ inquiries lead to the useful conclusion. But the process of allowing oneself to fail, to come to conclusions on one’s own, is much more suited to real-world problem solving than rote memorization is, she said.
“I think it’s applicable to all subject areas in a huge way,” she said.
Building community has also been a huge emphasis for the school. It’s part of what makes the JCCS model unique: It’s a “family-teacher” run school, according to JCCS’ family handbook, where the whole community takes part in the education. Experts in their fields like Johanson, Cryderman and Ryan — community members and often parents — teach exploratory classes at JCCS. They also come in for lunch duty and monitor children at recess. Many classes include multiple grade levels. Intergenerational friendship and mentorship is “probably the best thing about the school,” several parents said.
Taylor saw this play out between a kindergartner and an eighth-grader recently.
“One kid was like ‘Are you going to be my buddy on the bus again?’ and his friend was like, ‘Absolutely.’ The kids very much genuinely wanted to be together,” Taylor explained.
A group of elected parents and a teacher form JCCS’ Academic Policy Committee (APC), where much of the school’s direction comes from. Outside of state standards for teaching and Juneau School District policy, members of the APC make many of the curriculum decisions at the school. While constructivist teaching principals are becoming more popular at public schools, for instance, parents can vote to codify those principles into JCCS policy.
Principal Caron Smith, in her first year with the school, said she hopes to see the school keep doing what it does best: providing a niche alternative to Juneau School District schools, one where small class sizes and an emphasis on community take priority.
Eventually, the school will need a new facility. It’s not due to growth or lack of money: JSD enrollment numbers have trended slightly downward in recent years and JCCS has a charter-capped enrollment. The school occupies two of the downtown Articorp Building’s three floors. Multiple people rent the third floor and the building is aging.
Smith said she’s not yet sure where the school could move. That’s going to be the big challenge during her tenure at JCCS.
But, for now, her going is to just keep a good thing going.
“I showed up and it was like this,” she said. “I just get to keep it going. That’s my job, to keep it going.”
Know and Go: The Juneau Community Charter School will hold a celebration for their 20-year anniversary Saturday at the Juneau-Douglas High School commons at 6-9 p.m. The public is invited to attend. Admission is free and dinner will be served for $15. All proceeds will benefit the eighth-grade field trip to Denali.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.