FAIRBANKS — The teaching methods for Chinook Montessori Charter School were largely thought out over the course of a weekend in a locked hotel room in the mid-1990s.
Chinook is the longest running and first elementary charter school in the state. Twenty years later, the school is still teaching kids with its alternative teaching methods.
The idea for Chinook came after the Alaska Legislature passed a law allowing the creation of charter schools in 1995. The four founders found the idea interesting and a fun challenge.
The founders of Chinook were all teachers: Terri Austin, Barb Smith, Janelle McCrakin, and Annie Keep-Barnes. They all taught in the first years of Chinook.
Following the legislature’s action, the teachers decided to lock themselves in a hotel room over the course of a weekend, where most of the school’s teaching methods were thought up.
“We didn’t really have any longterm vision,” Austin said, “like 10 years from now or 15 years from now.”
The first few years were chaotic — the teachers were working 14-hour days, and many of the first families helped get the school running. The first families held open forums at the library, helped raise money and helped the school become better known. The teaching methods of Chinook were largely influenced by other schools, both in Alaska and Outside. Each founder had different education and different ways of teaching. Combining their experiences with those Outside, they created the teaching methods the school uses now.
Four seventh graders at Chinook agreed that the teaching methods were helpful in their education.
Dylan Swarthout said he likes the teaching methods at Chinook because they push him to be more independent.
“You can work at your own pace, but there is still a deadline,” said Aubrey Stacy.
Miles Kenaston and Ava Denton both agreed they like the time management aspect of the school.
“You get to chose what you want to do and when you want to do it,” Kenaston said.
The teaching methods at the school can range from simple textbook reading to hands-on activities. Each year the school holds a play, put on by the eighth graders, as a way to help raise money for the program and to help the students in the play develop public speaking skills.
The passage program illustrates one of the school’s primary uses of hands-on learning. Passage is a process that all eighth graders must complete to graduate.
Throughout the grades there are different variations of the final passage project. To complete the final passage you have to do multiple tasks over the course of the summer and school year on top of a normal work load. The final passage includes a service project, physical challenge, internship, gift to the school and reflection on past learning. They do this with the editing help of seventh graders and teachers. Graduation is a school-wide celebration, with gifts, rings, and speeches.
The school was originally on Fort Wainwright in a small building, and they were only authorized to use less than half the space. The building’s flat roof was prone to leak. To solve this problem the teachers and parents held roof shoveling parties in the winter.
The school existed on base for five years before staff were forced to find a new building or shut down the school. The process of finding a new building was an effort that was largely performed by the parents.
Barb Tallon, one of the first parents at Chinook, and who now works there, said they almost ended up in the downtown Co-op building, but in the end they had a structure built specifically for the school.
The new building, located in south Fairbanks, has been there since 2002. Since then there have been multiple additions to the building, such as outdoor equipment, a soccer field and a basketball court. Many of the additions have come from past students of the school as a part of passage.
Today, Wendy Demers serves as the head teacher of Chinook, which educates more than 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.