Juneau Community Charter School celebrates 20 years

Juneau Community Charter School alumni Lindsay Clark and Hannah Wilson places flowers on the stage at the school's 20th anniversary celebration on January 13, 2018. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Juneau Community Charter School alumnae Lindsay Clark and Hannah Wilson places flowers on the stage at the school’s 20th anniversary celebration Jan. 13, 2018. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Twenty years ago, a group of parents in Juneau banded together to establish a school where they could be more directly involved in their children’s education.

Ever since, the Juneau Community Charter School has offered an alternative learning environment.

Generations of Juneau Community Charter School students, parents and teachers gathered Saturday to celebrate two decades of community learning.

Parent and volunteer Tony Newman organized the event at Juneau-Douglas High School.

“We are here to recognize those founders for their work 20 years ago and to spend time together and reflect on how far we’ve come,” Newman said.

A 1995 state law established charter schools in Alaska, and the Juneau school opened its doors in 1997. The charter school operates under contract with the Juneau School District, but curriculum and administrative decisions are left up to an elected council of parents.

The original founders, including Frankie Pillifant, saw the potential for a charter school to take a different approach to education.

“I felt that arts integration and teaching to the whole child, not just having math or just art or just history but using the arts to bring math and science, in particular, to a place where different kinds of learners could touch it and maybe learn better,” Pillifant said.

The school also emphasizes community involvement and small class sizes.

Two of Pillifant’s children attended the school, which offered kindergarten through fourth grade when it first opened.

The school operated out of a portable at Glacier Valley Elementary School for the first semester. Then, it moved to the Arcticorp building downtown where it remains today.

The school gradually expanded up to eighth grade.

Parent and community volunteers still teach many of the classes.

Enrollment is capped, and its roughly 90 students are taught in mixed-grade classrooms.

This year, the school hired its first principal.

Pillifant always hoped the school would become a permanent part of the community. She said that if it weren’t for generations of parents who came after her and helped it grow, then it wouldn’t have been possible.

“The founding documents of anything, whether the U.S. Constitution or the JCCS, are interpreted along the way,” Pillifant said. “Those of us who put in the first years of giving birth to the school are now seeing how it’s grown. It’s gone through the crawling stage and the toddling stage, is it in high school now walking on its own and about to graduate? Hard to say.”

Saturday’s event also helped raise funds for this year’s eighth-grade trip to Denali National Park in May.

Student Marilla Blatnick designed T-shirts to sell for the fundraiser. I asked her what she likes most about attending the charter school.

“We don’t get grades,” Blatnick said.

Instead of letter grades, teachers provide parents with narrative reviews of student progress. But she also enjoys the emphasis on the arts.

“That’s pretty nice too, cause most schools don’t have stuff like that,” she said.

Alumni from the charter school’s first-ever class attended the celebration.

Lindsay Clark, who now teaches music at Auke Bay Elementary School, fondly remembers visits from local character Dee Longenbaugh, who captivated students with stories of Alaska history, as well as the music instruction she received.

Clark now plays the violin in the Juneau Symphony.

“I like to be involved in the community through music,” Clark said. “And then I also teach as part of Juneau Alaska Music Matters, and the director of it is actually my fourth grade teacher from the charter school, so it’s kind of come full circle.”

Saturday’s celebration felt more like a family reunion than a school function.

By all accounts, that’s exactly what the school’s founders were aiming for.

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