Bozeman School District’s charter school has made some changes in the last year but remains focused on competency-based learning and expedition trips, according to administrators.
This school year, the Bozeman Charter School, or BoCS, shares a principal and classrooms with Irving Elementary School and
While BoCS — originally the Bozeman Online Charter School — was housed in the Willson building last year, only its sixth to eighth grade students remain there. Its elementary students are in two classrooms at Irving, allowing them to take advantage of resources at the school.
The school is spreading the word of its changes.
“People don’t know we exist and we’re an option for their family,” said Jennifer Westphal, principal of Irving Elementary School and BoCS.
The charter school is a permanent offshoot of the online option the district created in 2020 due to the pandemic. It has evolved from its online days and now its students spend mornings in remote school, afternoons at Irving or Willson and take a weekly field trip.
It is the first and only public charter school in Montana.
Pairing the charter school with Irving was a good match, Westphal said. In the last few years, Irving’s enrollment had dipped and the school had a couple open classrooms. The charter school’s enrollment puts Irving’s enrollment closer to where it was a few years ago.
BoCS has two dedicated classrooms it uses and its own entrance, Westphal said.
While the middle schoolers are located in the Willson building, they’re able to enroll in elective classes at Sacajawea or Chief Joseph middle schools and Montana Digital Academy.
BoCS students can also participate in after school sports.
Westphal said the BoCS is for students and families who might need something a little different, either smaller classes, competency-based learning or a different daily schedule.
The charter school’s enrollment is lower than last year, with 44 students as of September. The school accepts new students all year long, Westphal said.
Last December, the school’s enrollment was 117 students, 70 in elementary and 47 in middle school. It had nine teachers and one counselor.
While the school is meant to be kindergarten through eighth grade, this year it has grades second through eight. Westphal said the school didn’t have enough of an enrollment among its youngest students to offer a K-1 class but would love to do so in the future.
With fewer students, the school also has a smaller staff, with one teacher for second-third grades, one teacher for fourth-fifth grades, two teachers for middle school and one health enhancement teacher who doubles as the expedition coordinator. The school shares a principal, counselor and interventionist teacher with Irving Elementary School.
“It’s a perfect example of shared resources,” Westphal said.
Leanne Lorenze, middle school science and math teacher at BoCS, said much of the enrollment drop is from eighth graders who graduated last year and started at one of the two high schools this year.
Lorenze, in her second year with BoCS and second decade with the district, said competency-based learning is more than students moving at their own pace. It’s about showing mastery of a subject at each step of the way.
“They have to prove mastery to me in person,” she said. “Once they’ve shown they’re a master of that standard then they advance to the next set of learning standards.”
Lorenze came to this teaching style when the district was in a blended learning model, with half of a class coming two days a week.
“It made me realize that doing a single lesson for a class of 30 kids was really not meeting the needs of 30 kids. It was meeting the needs of maybe a third of them, then there was a big chunk that was not ready for that lesson and then a big chunk was past that lesson,” she said.
She worked on developing her own skills teaching competency-based learning and then made the transition to the BoCS.
Last year, enrollment grew during the course of the school year and Lorenze expects that to be the case this year, too.
“That’s another nice thing about our competency-based approach. If kids do move in from somewhere, they will pick up where they need to pick up,” she said.
Splitting the school into two locations has also been a benefit, providing more space for the middle schoolers, she said. While the school used opposite schedules last year — the middle schoolers using the Willson in the afternoon while the elementary schoolers used it in the morning — the two school levels are on the same schedule.
“This allows us to do more things as an entire school,” she said.
Lorenze and Westphal both said there’s still a misconception that the charter school is an online school. While it evolved out of the district’s online option in the first year of the pandemic and has a remote portion, the in-person learning is a core component of the school.
“We are a legitimate school. The remote piece, it’s not even one of our cornerstone pieces,” Lorenze said. “Expeditionary learning and competency-based approach, I really believe those pieces are the future of education.”
For Lorenze, the best part of teaching at the BoCS is seeing the confidence grow in her students.
As a middle school math teacher, Lorenze said she saw firsthand how it was a critical period, especially for girls developing confidence in their skills as mathematicians. At that age, students internalize a lot of anxiety over what they perceive they know or don’t know as well as someone else, she said.
“The piece I love the most, all of my students see a level of confidence in themselves. They’re empowered in controlling their own learning. They’re the ones in charge of their learning,” she said.