By Wendy Sparks, DCS Board President
I am humbled. Today I dropped off my son at a school I helped to create… and it feels amazing. You can stop reading here and just know that this is a huge moment that involved a small army of supporters and there is no way I could possibly express the gratitude I feel right now, or you can read on and understand how all of this came together.
My son started 1st grade in September 2013. By October it was terribly obvious that the school was not meeting his needs. It was not their fault and it wasn’t his fault, but it was clear that it simply wasn’t working out. We were fortunate that his issues were not related to behavior or academics, but after just eight weeks in a program that didn’t fit his needs we saw his passion for learning slowly disappear. Our group of friends were having a similar issue, so we quietly and informally began exploring a small, alternative, private school/ learning cooperative concept that we hoped to launch the following school year. Sadly, by January it was clear that my son’s current school could no longer meet his needs. Just four months into first grade, my husband and I made the difficult decision to remove him from his school.
We were then faced with the reality navigating of our rural education system, a system that does a wonderful job for so many students, but can’t meet the needs of everyone. Should we try another local school while continuing to develop the cooperative, even though our son was totally burned out from his last school? Or do we leave our wonderful community and relocate to Salem or Corvallis, where we could find more educational options? Do we enroll him at a school in Salem and commit to a long daily commute? Or do we stay put and homeschool an only child while we decided what to do? It was a heartbreaking reality.
Instead, our fledgling (and admittedly, floundering) learning cooperative received an unexpected call from the school district that changed everything. We were suddenly given a totally different and unanticipated alternative: starting a charter school that would fill a service gap in our community. Launching a charter school was never on the agenda, but when the school district kindly offered us support, we couldn’t say no. Our community has limited resources and our schools, while full of caring, dedicated people, are not set up to serve nontraditional learners. It made sense to start something that addressed our interests while filling a critical need in our community. After some soul-searching, Dallas Community School was born.
We submitted our initial charter school application in July 2014, then a revision in October, and our Charter was signed in April 2015. Just two months after receiving funding, 5 months after receiving a signed charter, 18 months after starting down the charter school path, and nearly two years after our early foray into developing an alternative education model, today I dropped my son off at the school we started. Our school is staffed by amazing educational professionals who love and respect children and have seen the value of nontraditional approaches to learning. They understand that a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work for everyone. They know that for many families, kids don’t stop learning when they leave class and many kids don’t even need to be in a classroom in the first place. I am absolutely amazed that we were able to find six outstanding people who were willing to take the plunge and embrace a totally new school. Dennis, Andrea, Cindy, Julie, Cheri, and Shayla: I send my deepest and most heartfelt thanks.
Our school is the result of many visions, many dedicated volunteers, and many amazing people who lost a lot of sleep to see this through. There is no one founder. Erin was my co-pilot from the start and once she got over the fact that I am very likely insane, she went with me to nearly every district meeting, stayed up late working on the proposal, learned the Oregon Department of Education budgeting system practically overnight, and with a cool head, stepped in during the times when I needed to step out. Our husbands Casey and Scott stood by us through every twist and turn. Together we formed an amazing and effective board comprised of people who could understand our vision. Shanna, Amy, Lori, and Alison joined us along the way, each bringing fresh perspectives and tremendous talent to the table. Together, we built something that will make a difference in the lives of 125 students and their families. We all learned to look beyond the needs of our own kids and think like a true board of directors. We developed policies, negotiated leases, painted our building, dealt with city occupancy rules, pulled weeds, worked out our education service model, developed job descriptions, hired staff, created an enrichment program, made forms, made more forms, made policies, made more policies, debated some hot issues…and in the end we created a school. Erin, Scott, Scott, Lori, Shanna, Amy, and Alison…we did it, and I am forever grateful. And to all of the people who helped us get off the ground: Casey, Rebecca, Lisa, Teresa, and so many others, thank you for standing by us.
Along the way we had more than a little help. We couldn’t have secured our occupancy or moved into our site without help from Aaron. He has contributed so much in a short time and always with a positive attitude. Herb donated a huge chunk of his fees for architectural review. Nicole gracefully negotiated a complicated lease. When we issued the call for manual labor, many parents showed up along with their friends, church community, and family to help out, and then selflessly offered their support again and again. This spirit of volunteerism is deeply appreciated. Scott R. worked quickly to fix a last minute crisis and then jumped in when we needed extra help. Eric pulled an electrical miracle out of a hat and made sure we were ready for opening day. City of Dallas and Polk County staff including inspectors, planners, and building officials did everything within their power to keep our projects moving forward. And to the families of our staff: thank you for sharing your spouses and parents with us and for volunteering to pull everything together.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without Dallas School District. The charter school climate in Oregon is often tense and many charter schools are developed within districts that absolutely resist the formation of a charter school. Many charter proposals fail as a result. But we were lucky. Our district, under leadership from superintendent Christy Perry, saw a gap in service and identified a group of parents who were trying to fill that gap. Without Christy’s initial invitation to meet with her, Dallas Community School never would have happened. With her help, we crafted a sustainable service model that did not compete with the District’s existing (and highly effective) programs. After Christy moved on to a new adventure, assistant superintendent Cory Bradshaw and superintendent Dennis Engle maintained the district’s commitment and provided endless support. DSD2 staff, including Tami, Debbie, Amy, Autymn, and so many others, were truly wonderful resources. The Dallas School District board was beyond accommodating, listening to staff recommendations and asking educated and important questions. DSD2 is a model of how districts can provide an excellent service while still welcoming charter schools that fill a distinct community need.
So here we are. Today a new model for education in the Mid-Willamette Valley is available to nontraditional students and I could not be more proud of our team, our students, and our DCS families. Forming a charter school is a lot like having a baby. It’s uncomfortable, painful, messy, and full of anxiety, sleepless nights, and wondering what it will look like when it’s finished. The result is an exciting new service for 125 students, as well as new jobs created in Dallas and a beautiful facility that we can call home. I am truly humbled to be in the company of the amazing, dedicated people who made this happen.