Three Rivers Charter School, sponsored by the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, is judged tops against 80 schools in Oregon
by: Jim Hart, 
While several classes work simultaneously in the same large room, Three Rivers Charter School Teacher, Merilee Bales, second from left, guides students through a geometry demonstration of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Staff members at Three Rivers Charter School in West Linn don't know what it is like to be the best.

That's because they've never asked to be evaluated. But they likely have been among the state's best charter schools right from the school's inception around the turn of the century.

Confirming that idea as fact was the recent announcement that Three Rivers had been chosen from among Oregon's 80 charter schools as the best in the state, given the title of 'Charter School of the Year.'

The Charter School Development Center (CSDC) announced recently that Three Rivers was the winner for the 2007-2008 school year.

School Administrator Katherine Holtgraves says teachers at Three Rivers have been educating students pretty much the same throughout the past eight years, which makes it ironic that the school was honored only this year.

The fact is that no one from the school previously applied to be evaluated for recognition.

'Our jobs are about raising enough money to run the school and doing it well,' Holtgraves said.

'We haven't had time to apply for awards,' said Merilee Bales, who co-founded the school with Holtgraves in 2001.

Among the school's qualities that turned the heads of state evaluators were student test scores on standardized tests, stability of funding, high attendance rate and a consistently high rating when judged on criteria for all public schools in Oregon.

'I think we're the only middle school in Oregon to have received an outstanding ranking for all the years we've been evaluated,' Bales said. 'And that's mainly because of student achievement.'

On the state's public school report card, Three Rivers has been top-level (outstanding) all of the years of its existence, according to Joni Gilles, director of the office of educational improvement and innovation of the Oregon Department of Education. The current CSDC award, then, is just confirmation of previous evaluations by state Department of Education criteria and results of student testing, which show the school's students consistently testing above 95 percent in mathematics, reading and writing.

'I think that record is pretty awesome,' said Lisa Ellingson, a parent with several children in the school. Ellingson, one of the parents who assisted with the school's initial grant writing, now serves as chair of the board.

Even though they haven't applied for the recognition, Holtgraves is understandably enthusiastic.

'This is a really exciting thing for our school and our board and all the people that have believed in this school,' Holtgraves said, 'to be able to give them an award that says their hard work was meaningful.'

Holtgraves believes that part of the school's success stems from the fact that assignment to classes isn't determined by grade level. Any class can be comprised of students in grades 4-8.

'Middle school students are with both younger and older students,' she said, 'allowing them to see the next steps in their development or to revisit and cement skills that need to be reviewed.'

Ellingson said two things stand out in her mind that make the school exemplary: individualized learning and teaching students independence.

'The school tends to attract three types of students,' she said, 'those with a different learning style and those who don't fit in with the mainstream.

'We have a lot of kids who approach differently the way they learn. I think it's a unique learning environment and it's remarkable to find a school that can meet the needs of students at both ends of the spectrum and do it successfully.'

The second factor has a lot of value in Ellingson's mind because she has seen it play out in her daughter's life.

'They teach kids and parents how to be responsible for themselves and their learning as well as responsible as citizens and human beings,' she said. 'They're taught, even at fourth-grade level, how to interact with adults. My daughter said she found it easy to have a conversation with a teacher and advocate for herself. Without much help from me now she is taking charge of her own life.'

Three Rivers also offers the motivation that peer-to-peer education provides as well as mentoring opportunities. Staff members also bring in high school students as mentors as well as adult business leaders with specific skills and teaching aides to expand their students' horizons.

But there's a lot more to providing a quality education than just offering mentors and small classes, especially with charter schools.

The sponsoring school district is allowed by law to retain up to 20 percent of state funding for its sponsorship, which leaves the school less-than-adequate funding.

In the current year, for example, state funding that Three Rivers will receive through its sponsorship by the West Linn-Wilsonville School District is $467,000. It also will receive $79,000 from the district's local option tax.

That total government funding of $546,000 is only 65 percent of the $846,000 of planned expenses for Three Rivers. The additional $300,000 would include donations from parents as well as proceeds of the annual auction.

Through frugal methods, the staff and board have managed to accumulate a contingency fund over the past eight years that could (with the usual state funding) operate the school for a year without any fund-raising.

That's their rainy-day fund, but they're hoping it won't rain.

Bales believes that the amount of parental support is a major factor in not only the success of Three Rivers, but also a major aspect of evaluating the school for an award.

'Among the deciding factors,' Bales said, 'is the commitment of parents to provide funding that is withheld by the district, and the fact that (parents) provided us with a building.'

Three Rivers was the brainchild of Holtgraves and Bales when they noticed students at one of the district's middle schools having difficulty adjusting to the lifestyle of an average classroom.

They started in that public school by melding pre-teen students with the teen-agers and changing the environment of the classroom.

After a year or two, they decided to make a break from the public school building and go out on their own.

That was 2000, and they applied for a charter school startup grant.

Today, they lease their current building, which is at the intersection of Willamette Falls Drive and West A Street, just north of the police department.

In that setting, the school is basically on its own - much like an old one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. Three Rivers provides its own school board, building, teaching staff, instructional aides, clerical, accounting and support staff, insurance, transportation, utilities and maintenance as well as instructional equipment and supplies.

They also seek resource people who can teach special subjects that would help the school's 6½ teachers, and from the school district they get two part-time instructional assistants for special education students.

And don't forget the effort necessary for fund-raising.

But Holtgraves says that all of the hard work is worth the effort.

'Even though there are a lot of things that I don't like to do,' she said, 'it is such a great thing to be able to provide a school for kids who need the choice of a different environment. It's a beautiful thing.

'Right now, we have one parent who is doing drama and another parent who is doing music, and I think the parents really feel good about this school.'

The school's focus on academics, Holtgraves says, is what makes the difference. That makes Three Rivers even more like the old one-room school, where the school marm insisted on play only during recess.

Three Rivers teachers are helping kids learn how to be lifelong learners and to be what Holtgraves called 'good people in life.'

'We do a lot of work to get kids to self-analyze how they can improve,' she said.

Holtgraves points to one student's remarks as typical of student opinion about Three Rivers. She said the student, who had transferred from an area middle school to Three Rivers, wasn't complaining - just observing.

'At (the previous public school) we were all concerned about social life and our friends,' the girl told Holtgraves, 'but since we've been here (at Three Rivers) all you guys talk about is school and academics.'

The Three Rivers' culture, Holtgraves said, makes it cool to be successful.

'We don't have a lot of social issues because it isn't our main focus,' the school administrator said. 'Student time and energy is directed at academics and learning.'

Another thing that middle school students lose by coming to Three Rivers is their anonymity. Average class size varies between 10 and 15.

'In a class of that size,' Holtgraves said, 'you can't not do your homework; you can't not add to a discussion.

'The 'complaint' that I hear from kids is that they can't be anonymous here. In this school you can't just blend in, and you can't be ignored.'

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