New Alta Vista Charter School has a handle on education

Students split time between campus and home
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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When asked by his principal what he likes best about Alta Vista Community Charter School, TJ Nevarez, 10, responds with a high-five and a simple statement - "hands-on learning."

TJ enjoys working with his hands and making airplanes out of paper and tape, so he fits in well at Alta Vista, which incorporates an active learning approach to its curriculum.

This is Alta Vista's first year and it opened on Aug. 15. Principal Patricia Leftridge promotes the hands-on learning experience by incorporating some aspects of traditional, Montessori and Waldorf curriculums.

Leftridge said by encouraging education by experience more students are given the opportunity to succeed.

"Take a student who learns by doing and you put him in a traditional classroom and you tell him ‘stop moving, Johnny' it really does keep them back from learning because some people learn from using their hands, by doing," Leftridge said.

Such is the case for TJ, who excelled in his math class the day his teacher had him learn some basic math concepts through creating paper airplanes.

Leftridge has a hand in the classroom experience herself, as she teaches traditional music classes and Spanish through music classes.

Her students, who range from Kindergarten through fifth-grade, are currently learning to play a G chord on the guitar. On Wednesday, Sophia Stevens, a Kindergartener, was enthusiastically strumming her guitar before Leftridge.

"I'm awesome," Sophia declared to her fellow students.

Music isn't the only way students are introduced to other cultures at Alta Vista. At 8:10 every morning, students gather in the cafeteria to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the Good Morning Song, which consists of saying "good morning, how are you? I'm fine, Goodbye," in a new language every day.

Students currently sing in English, Spanish, German, Slovene, Thai and French.

"I think to understand another culture helps you better resolve conflicts and to better to coexist. As we become a smaller society because of Skype and the Internet and all of those components understanding that not everyone says ‘hello' by saying ‘hello' is the first step in other cultures and their priorities and belief systems," Leftridge said.

Another aspect of Alta Vista that sets it apart from other schools is that students spend part of their week on campus and another part of the week they are taught at home. Each student at Alta Vista has an individualized education plan to determine how much time they spend at home and on campus.

Around eight students at Alta Vista are home schooled full time, meaning they meet with a teacher on campus for an hour once per week. Most of the other students are home schooled one or two days every week.

"Some families said ‘well, we want a home school option, but we want our children to have socialization,'" Leftridge said. "The parents get to be more involved, which I think gives some a lot more joy."

The classes at Alta Vista all have around 20 students and grades are mixed in each classroom. For example, Kindergarten and first-graders are in the same classroom, as are third- and fourth-graders.

"We've read studies that say the mixture causes a reduction in bullying because when kids know there are different ages around they're more accepting of different behaviors," Leftridge said.

Students with food allergies have a special place at Alta Vista, as some classrooms and tables in the lunchroom are peanut-free.

Leftridge attributes her school's smooth start to her faculty and staff, who she calls "out-of-the-box thinkers."

Upon walking into Tim Tomlin's third- and fourth-grade class, a pile of purple and yellow cauliflower along with a bunch of broccoli could be found sitting on a nearby table on "Double Veggie Wednesday." Tomlin introduces his student to two new organic vegetables every week.

Being outdoors is also a big part of the school day at Alta Vista. Fourteen raised flower beds are ready for planting and a nature trail near the school will be used for hiking and science classes.

"Our teachers hit the ground running and are the backbone of the school and what our success will ride on," Leftridge said.

Contact Amber Marra at Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.