As schools face academic and financial pressure in a fast-changing education world, the tiny, 102-year-old Battle Rock Charter School preserves its legacy with hands-on, nature-focused education.
The oldest building on the school’s campus, a one-room schoolhouse, was built in 1915 about 15 miles down Montezuma County Road G in McElmo Canyon.
School buildings sit at the bottom of a sandstone cliff face, with sweeping views of ranch country, canyon walls and the Sleeping Ute Mountain.
Battle Rock converted from a public school to a charter in 1994 and was one of the first charter schools in Colorado.
Moqui Mustang-Fury, who was a student at the school in the late 1970s and has taught there for 12 years, said last week that she understands the pros and cons of going to a school like Battle Rock.
“With such a small group, we can look at the population we’re serving and what their needs are,” she said. “It’s an important place for kids to build who they are.”
Surviving a breaking pointAbout three years ago, the tuition-free school was in bad financial shape and enrollment was low, business manager Karen Casgrain said. Having a head administrator on the books drained the school’s finances, she said.
School officials decided to change the structure, and Battle Rock no longer has a principal. Instead, the school’s six staff members make decisions on curriculum and administration democratically, all giving input to one another, Casgrain said.
Enrollment has almost doubled, from 24 full-time students three years ago to 42 this year, lead teacher Justine Bayles said.
New this year is a program that involves 14 home-schooled kids from the area who attend Battle Rock one Friday a month. Staff hope to involve more home-schooled students in future years, she said.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done in the last three years,” Bayles said. “It enriches our program when we get more families and students.”
A different learning environmentWhen Mustang-Fury was a student, Battle Rock’s curriculum was focused on agriculture, as well as traditional subjects — “reading, writing and asparagus,” she said.
In those days, every student was in a 4-H Club, but they learned to play music, too. They took field trips to Denver and Albuquerque.
The school doubled as a community center for residents of McElmo Canyon, hosting dances and meals, utilizing the school’s space and kitchen.
When a member of the community died, the school sometimes hosted meals held after funerals.
Some students who attend the school now are the fourth or fifth generation in their families to go to Battle Rock, she said.
There is still a focus on agriculture and nature — students grow produce and herbs in the school’s garden and help care for chickens. They climb the sandstone hill behind the school during recess and hike nearby Sand Canyon.
The school is remote, so access to technology has been a struggle, Bayles said. High-speed internet made its way down the canyon and now connects Battle Rock students, who start to learn code in third grade, and some fifth-graders are learning Java.
On Feb. 7, Tegan Lewis’s K-2 class was finishing up a unit on Chinese culture in which they put on a tea ceremony.
“They’re learning things that are relevant to our time,” Mustang-Fury said. “That’s really important. It’s a special place.”
Battle Rock students are grouped not by individual grade levels but by peer group. Kindergartners meet in the same classroom with first- and second-graders, and grades 3-6 often meet together.
The entire student body meets for “Science Fridays” once a month and for other experiential learning sessions, teacher Hannah Hall said.
That allows students to learn at their own speed.
“They’re not in the box,” Lewis said. “We allow them to grow at the pace they need.”
Siblings can interact with one another throughout the day instead of being in separate classrooms.
Students solve behavior issues together in a group, Bayles said. If a student calls another a bad name, it is brought before other students instead of one-on-one mediation.
Teachers try to help students understand how hurtful words affect other students as well as their own reputation.
Improving Battle Rock’s performanceIn December, Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 Board Members renewed Battle Rock’s charter agreement with the district. The length is a two-year charter with an option to renew for a third year.
When the school board approved the charter, district staff members said they would like to have more information regarding student assessment from Battle Rock.
When state accreditation ratings were issued to schools in October, Battle Rock did not receive a rating because of insufficient data.
Though all students at the school take STAR English language arts and math assessment tests, participation is low on other state tests, such as Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), Bayles said.
“We encourage participation on the tests, but we have a high opt-out rate,” she said.
About 30 percent of students at Battle Rock ended the 2015-2016 school year at or above grade level expectations in English language arts, according to an Re-1 report on Battle Rock’s academic achievement. In math, about 40 percent ended that school year at or above grade level.
The report said Battle Rock students demonstrated strong growth on STAR math tests but lagged in English.
Casgrain said charter schools are held to the same standards as public schools, and the Re-1 district holds the school accountable.
The next 100 yearsBattle Rock staff members hope to build on the school’s recent success and continue programs such as the home-school integration program.
The school provides a place for children just to be children, and use their imagination.
“The kids could have fun with a spoon,” Bayles said. “We’re a more family-oriented, tight-knit group. It’s just a different environment. We focus on strengths and give students a reason to celebrate success.”