Willson School File

The Bozeman Public Schools administrative offices are held at Willson School, photographed on Feb. 9.

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The newest school addition to the Bozeman School District, an online charter school, is beginning to take shape as it charts a new path — one different from any other public school in the state.

The Bozeman Online Charter School, a permanent offshoot of the online K-8 option the district created last school year due to the pandemic, is seeing its enrollment fill as administrators and teachers plan its inaugural year.

While there’s still a lot of work ahead of the school, Cale VanVelkinburgh, principal of the Bozeman Online Charter School, said it’s been a fun journey to create a new school that is focused on meeting students where they’re at with flexible support.

Despite its name, the online charter school will also have in-person learning opportunities for students with a handful of classrooms set aside for students in the Willson Auditorium. It’s one of the first times in almost 10 years that the Willson will host K-8 classes.

Students will also be able to utilize the gym for health enhancement classes and the auditorium for music classes, VanVelkinburgh said.

While the in-person options won’t be mandatory for students, VanVelkinburgh said it was important to offer the social and face-to-face time for students. It was a lesson administrators learned through the Bozeman Online School this past school year.

Unlike last year when students could move between the Bozeman Online School and enrollment at their in-person school, VanVelkinburgh said families will be asked to commit to the full year in the online charter school. Staffing for both the Bozeman Online Charter School and other district schools will be based on those enrollment numbers.

The school will be on a rotating schedule, with the elementary school students able to come for in-person learning support in the morning and the middle school students in the afternoon.

There will be a two-hour break in between to accommodate transportation time and a lunch break.

Having a physical location also allows for a gathering place for teachers to share ideas and meet in-person, VanVelkinburgh said. In addition to the classrooms, the seven teachers, a part-time counselor and a part-time librarian will have shared office space in the Willson.

While most of the online classes will be taught by teachers in their home offices, VanVelkinburgh said it was just as important to ensure teachers had a shared social gathering place too.

The online charter school will focus on competency-based learning for its students, which allows students to advance through lessons at the pace of their own learning.

In addition to competency-based learning, the school also has an emphasis on place-based and experiential learning. The school administration and teachers will begin planning different field experiences or excursions for the students, VanVelkinburgh said.

Some of the ideas include partnering with Montana State University to learn more about projects happening in its different labs, studying aviation at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and charting a food system from farm to grocery store to restaurant.

“Our campus is really the larger Gallatin Valley area,” VanVelkinburgh said, adding the school would try to take advantage of those resources and its smaller size.

There are just over 80 students enrolled as of early July, but VanVelkinburgh said he anticipates that number will increase as the Aug. 30 start to school nears.

Roughly 60% of the students and a handful of the teachers are returning from the Bozeman Online School, VanVelkinburgh estimated.

There’s been increased interest from families who have home schooled, too. With flexible schedules, unique curriculum options, opportunities for parent involvement and social engagement for students, many home schooling families find the online charter school model could be a good fit for their needs, VanVelkinburgh said.

The first year will be a process of developing the school identity and culture, VanVelkinburgh said, with troubleshooting happening as any issues arise. One of the parts he’s most looking forward to is deciding on the school’s mascot and colors with the help of its inaugural class.

“It helps create ownership for everyone,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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