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On a brisk December day before the start of the Bozeman School District’s winter break, a group of elementary students, teachers and guardians gathered at Haynes Pavilion ice rink at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds.

The students from the Bozeman Online Charter School slid along the ice and called out to teachers and parents as they passed. For some, it was one of the first times they’d strapped on skates.

“It’s great to get them out in all kinds of settings. Doing a lot of our local sports and parks and trails,” said Chris Ottey, the school’s health enhancement teacher.

Ottey said he’s trying to spark an interest in sports or an activity that students might not have considered before.

“Maybe a student will make a connection today that hasn’t tried this before,” he said.

Previously, Ottey taught at Sacajawea Middle School for 25 years. At the charter school, he teaches both elementary and middle school and plans what the school calls expeditionary trips to bring learning outside the classroom.

“I see it as a lot of personal connections with smaller groups of students where kids can explore a lot of their interests and feel comfortable in smaller groups,” Ottey said.

The charter school, a permanent offshoot of the online option the district created in 2020 due to the pandemic and the first of its kind in the state, wrapped its first four months with a steadily increasing enrollment and continued expeditionary learning.

“It’s a school that was envisioned and developed by all the people involved in it who have a personal commitment to see it succeed,” said the school’s principal Cale VanVelkinburgh. “It’s one of our greatest strengths.”

In December, the school enrollment was at 117 students, 70 in the elementary level and 47 in the middle school. VanVelkinburgh estimates the school had added 26 students since the school’s start in August with an additional handful of students enrolling in January.

“We’ve seen lots of growth,” VanVelkinburgh said, adding there’s been significant interest from families that previously home schooled or were enrolled out-of-district.

A few families moved out-of-state or decided the school wasn’t the right fit for them.

Despite the enrollment growth, VanVelkinburgh said they’re not at the point of needing to hire more teachers, with nine teachers and one counselor. He would like to add a paraprofessional position in the near future, though.

“It’s a small school and a small team,” he said. “Everyone is really committed to one another as a team, not just as a colleague.”

Jen Burke, a second and third grade teacher with the school, said it’s that sense of camaraderie both among teachers and students that she enjoys.

“What I love most about this is the sense of community,” Burke said. “We have such varying ages but yet we all work together and support each other.”

As part of the experiential learning component, the school has gone to the Montana Science Center, Museum of the Rockies and the Gallatin History Museum. For the remainder of the school year, there’s a trip to the airport in the works and a winter ecology lesson planned.

“We try to tie in our expeditions to what we’re studying in the moment but also having that sense of community and looking at the bigger picture like Bozeman history,” Burke said.

While the trips take planning and coordination, VanVelkinburgh said he’s hoping to build up the intentionality and purpose behind them as the school continues to grow.

A core component of the school is also competency-based learning, which allows students to progress through lessons at the pace of their own learning.

For example, there was a sixth grade student who didn’t have a lot of confidence in her math skills at the start of the school year, VanVelkinburgh said. But she’s gained confidence through competency-based learning and will be starting seventh grade math curriculum soon.

“She’s moving through with total self-efficacy and confidence,” he said.

Despite its name, the charter school also has optional in-person learning opportunities for students with a handful of classrooms set aside in the Willson Auditorium. VanVelkinburgh said it fluctuates how many people opt for the in-person options on any given day.

“That continues to be a positive marker,” VanVelkinburgh said. “For some of the families that are fully remote, it works really well for them and their students. For others it’s a good thing to have (the in-person portion).”

The school operates on a rotating schedule, with the middle school students coming in for in-person learning support in the morning and the elementary school students coming in the afternoon.

“We teach all the core concepts in the morning for students who can’t make it in the morning, they’re getting all the core concepts. In the afternoon, we have our enhancement, our interventions, our small group time to really practice those concepts,” Burke said.

With the split schedule, families must provide transportation in the middle of the day. VanVelkinburgh said he knows that can be a challenge for families.

“At the end of the day, is it the perfect fit for everyone? No,” VanVelkinburgh said. “It requires a lot on the part of the parents.”

Both VanVelkinburgh and the teachers said they’ve heard feedback from parents on how much more engaged their children have been in the BOCS setting.

“They’re loving it. The small community, the small groups we’re able to do,” Burke said, adding the online portion provides families a flexible option that might have to travel for work.

Back at the rink, Burke points to a kindergartener slowly sliding along the ice.

“Look at her go, she’s doing so well! This is her very first time,” she said.

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

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