Polaris Charter School Founding Committee Members Address Public Education Commission

IMG_2969 (1).jpgA large crowd gathered Tuesday afternoon at UNM-LA for a Public Education Commission hearing on the proposed Polaris Charter School for 6th-8th graders. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


Seven members of the proposed Polaris Charter School founding team and proposed governing board members were on hand Tuesday afternoon to address the Public Education Commission which met at UNM-LA.

Founding team members are Bill Hargraves, Elizabeth Martineau, Robert Gibson, Scott Johnson, Branden Willman-Kozimor, Amy Bartlett Gaunt and Ken Holmes as well as Christine Bernstein and Jane Clements who were not present.

Martineau told the commission that each person on the founding and prospective board is part of the Los Alamos community. She said the grass-roots effort has been a long journey which started about four years ago when the Los Alamos Public Schools applied for a grant to “reimagine our schools”.

“While we did not receive the grant, we were finalists in the process. More importantly, it made our community think deeply about education. We were inspired by the lessons of the XQ grant and decided to use these new ideas to start a school. This team was formed in 2017 to make that dream a reality,” she said. “Because we are deeply committed to public education and equal access for all students, regardless of their financial situation or current academic progress, we decided that a public charter school, not a private school, was the way to go. Data tells us that many Los Alamos students struggle with depression, stress and anxiety. Research tells us that social emotional skills and student engagement increase academic achievement, so these are both important parts of our mission.”

Martineau said middle school is a critical time for student development.

“In Los Alamos students go from five small elementary schools to one large middle school, and while this may work for many students, we know that some students feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and invisible.  Polaris aims to help the Los Alamos Public School district by supporting students who learn best in a smaller setting through active hands-on projects where they can have a voice in their education. We aim to provide students with the skills to become agents in their own learning,” she said.

Martineau told the Commission that while some people say the proposed charter school is taking money away from public school, Polaris is a public school that follows the same rules, testing requirements and is funded the same way.

“Public education funding belongs to each student and schools have a responsibility to design learning opportunities that work best for them. Los Alamos has a number of students who decide to attend our schools, but live elsewhere and funding follows those students. Like our district school, Polaris will provide another option for students and families who believe that this school will support the needs of their students. Our students have diverse needs and learning styles, and our school options should reflect that diversity,” she said.

The mission of Polaris, Martineau said, is to engage students in the community, environment, history and culture of Northern New Mexico through personalized hands-on learning experiences that strengthen and support student well-being and intellectual growth.

“Our proposal does not add additional programs, instead it weaves social emotional learning, active community engagement and academic learning into every part of our education plan: the curriculum, instruction, behavior expectations, and even the daily schedule,” she said.

She described the “Advisory Time” first thing in the morning which she said helps students focus for the day, set goals and solve problems together. The rest of the morning, she said, is divided into two large blocks of time for math and language.

“These blocks of time will allow students to focus on individual mastery of skills and provide small group instruction,” Martineau said, adding that the afternoons are dedicated to integrated projects where students apply those skills in science, social studies and the arts.

“Polaris will use a place-based framework that leverages the local community and our beautiful landscape as a framework for learning. The place-based model uses projects, student mastery, personalized learning and social emotional habits of success to focus curriculum, instruction and school decisions. We want to focus on actively engaging students to build skills, confidence, and voice locally and regionally, and then expand to solve global problems. Our team has already joined the place network, which is a community of schools in multiple states who are using this framework. This community of support will help us as we move forward,” Martineau said.

“Will this change be easy? No. But we believe that our Los Alamos community is innovative and ready for a change in public education.  We are dedicated to do scokised

Hargraves first disclosed that he is both a member of the Los Alamos Public School Board and a member of the Polaris founding team and potential governing board member.

“Today, I do not represent the Los Alamos School Board. Today, I do represent Polaris School,” he said. He went on to explain how the Polaris governing board is positioned to support the success of its mission, opening the school and ensuring its continued operation into the future.

He said the basis of any public body must be clear to the public it serves.

“This begins with the Polaris governing board’s bylaws which define the organization and function of the governing board thereby enabling the board to operate smoothly, effectively and with mindful purpose focused on the Polaris School mission,” Hargraves said.

He said board policies and strategic planning clearly set expectations for the academic leader and educational staff and that a school culture grows from these expectations. He said during the planning year the governing board will be active in several ways to ensure Polaris opens on time and to support the academic leader which will be hired by the governing board.

Hargraves said the standing committees of governance, finance and academics will be formed immediately to plan and execute training, help prepare a budget for the first operating year and tackle other activities as necessary.

“These committees will work closely with the academic leader and not stray into school operations aspects of the opening year activities,” he said.

Additionally, Hargraves said a facilities committee will be setup to conduct large parts of the work to locate, prepare and open the school building. An enrollment committee will plan and execute activities to promote the school and ensure expected first year enrollment is met or exceeded, he said.

“EdTec, which provides our finance backend will be engaged with the governing board, these committees and the academic leader throughout the planning year. Our advisory council membership and our large network of community supporters will be tapped to work on the governing board committees. Members of the advisory council are skilled in real estate, facility management, child psychiatry, law and education,” Hargraves sad.

Annually, the governing board will evaluate the academic leader and conduct a board self-evaluation to identify successes and areas of improvement which will be folded into the strategic planning for the next operating year.