A Boise-based charter school that uses a model to deliberately deemphasize technology and devices has been flagged by state charter school regulators for failing to meet academic standards and for struggling with compliance in its federal special education programs is one of 17 Idaho charter schools up for renewal next week.
Peace Valley Charter School opened its doors at 1845 S. Federal Way in 2018, and serves about 350 kindergarten through eighth grade students using a Waldorf educational model, which deemphasizes computers and standardized tests and integrates the arts and life skills into academic disciplines.
Public charter schools are considered for renewal every five years in Idaho, and Peace Valley’s existing performance certificate is set to expire June 30, state records show. Because Peace Valley opened in 2018, it is operating under its first performance certificate and is up for its renewal review during a Feb. 23 meeting of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in Boise.
Since its opening, the State Department of Education and Idaho Public Charter School Commission have flagged several alleged or potential operational, academic and safety issues at Peace Valley and fielded multiple complaints from parents. The concerns, which are documented in state records attached to the school’s renewal application include:
- Peace Valley has not met any of its academic performance measures and has the lowest literacy rate of any of the 63 schools authorized by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.
- Peace Valley is not accredited, even though the school’s initial performance certificate was awarded on the condition that Peace Valley achieve full accreditation by July 1, 2021. Peace Valley has not yet achieved accreditation. Peace Valley Administrator Andrew Ross said the school did achieve candidacy status in March 2022 and is on track to achieve full accreditation from the State Board of Education’s approved accrediting body, Cognia, before a new proposed deadline of July 1, 2024. According to Cognia’s website, a school becomes a candidate once it has hosted a candidacy review and the candidacy review team and the Cognia accreditation office finds that the school has the capacity to earn accreditation but has not yet completed an engagement review.
- Peace Valley has struggled to maintain compliant operations in special education and federal programs.
- The school has struggled to maintain a safe school environment, according to the conditional review documents, including issues with building maintenance, student supervision and incident reporting.
- State agencies and departments have described Peace Valley school administrators as “non-responsive” to complaints.
- Parents have filed complaints with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission regarding “avoidance of communication.”
- Turnover has been high on Peace Valley’s school board, with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission noting the school has gone through more than 40 different board members in its first four years. On April 29, 2022, before Peace Valley’s current board chair William Paul stepped into the role, the Idaho School Board Association wrote a letter stating that it had concerns about the board’s ability to function and move beyond personal conflicts. Since Paul stepped in, charter school regulators have noted increased signs of stability on the five-member board.
“The school has not met standard on any academic performance measure this performance certificate term, and has the lowest literacy proficiency rates and largest loss of proficiency during the school year of any school in the IPCSC’s portfolio,” Idaho Public Charter School Commission Director Jenn Thompson wrote in a Dec. 12, 2022, report recommending renewing Peace Valley’s charter with conditions. “This was true in 2021 and 2022.”
“(Peace Valley Charter School) has acted to correct some of the issues, but failure to do so promptly is noted as an additional concern in several instances,” Thompson’s report adds. “(Peace Valley) has struggled with board turnover, internal divisiveness and a poor working relationship between the board and its administrator.”
Last year, Peace Valley received almost $2.2 million in state general funding, state records show.
Peace Valley Charter School in Boise takes a different approach to education
Ross, who has been Peace Valley’s administrator since late 2018 and is leaving his post after this school year according to state records, says the Idaho Public Charter School Commission has a limited vantage point and context into the school and how it operates.
In a lengthy interview at the school this week, Ross said some of the special education and federal programs compliance concerns documented in Peace Valley’s conditional renewal documents are outdated or are in the process of being resolved and improved. Ross told the Idaho Capital Sun that in the past, the school has had turnover with its special education teachers, but has made great strides working with its federal programs director to ensure the proper documents are in place.
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Academically, Ross said Peace Valley is a different kind of a school, and Idaho’s computerized assessments, which are mandated by the state, don’t do a good job of measuring his students.
Peace Valley uses a Waldorf education model that de-emphasizes technology. Ross said that has led to some computer literacy issues for students, and the school is working to build on students’ keyboarding skills.
Rather than typing and swiping on iPads or Chromebooks all day, Peace Valley students are more likely to spend time in the garden on the school’s campus, learning to sew, practicing swinging a hammer or learning fractions by measuring ingredients in a cooking class, Ross said. Students may spend part of a day with therapy animals, including dogs, a rabbit and birds. They blend subjects together. They incorporate speech and dance-like movements into the practice of Eurythmy, which is a common exercise in Waldorf schools. They keep large, colorful notebooks filled with handwritten assignments and artwork on lessons from botany to fractions, which they add to all year and then take home at the end, he said.
It’s common for students to enter “looped” classes where they spend multiple years in a row with the same teacher and classmates. Ross said Peace Valley teachers and staff want students to be able to work with their hands, incorporate movement and develop socially as well as academically.
“I believe it works,” Ross said. “And I believe we have a lot of work in front of us as it relates to being able to show that to our authorizer and to our community. But because of what we’ve seen through some other metrics, we do believe these kids are where they need to be, but it’s about building up some of their skills to show that on those other metrics (like state assessment tests).”
Ross’ background is in teaching health and physical education. But after 15 years, Ross sought out something different, which he said led him and his children, who are students enrolled in the school, to Peace Valley.
“When my school in Atlanta moved to one-to-one devices, to Chromebooks, I watched my students completely change,” Ross said. “Once we went one-to-one, that’s when I said, ‘There has got to be something else different for me.’”
Peace Valley is different in other ways, too. The school, which is housed in a converted office space, doesn’t have a cafeteria and doesn’t offer a school lunch program. Instead, students bring sack lunches and have breakfast provided at school, Ross said.
Idaho charter schools are public schools, but they don’t receive facilities money from the state and can’t pass bond issues to pay for construction. Peace Valley leases its school instead of owning it, and charter school regulators said exiting the lease and purchasing the building are important financial considerations for the school. Ross said the school is in process of working with an investor and fundraising in hopes of purchasing the facility.
Like other Idaho charter schools, Peace Valley enrolls students via an enrollment lottery (students don’t attend automatically because they live in the neighborhood), and the school is advertising for parents to enter an upcoming enrollment lottery this month for the next school year.
Peace Valley administrator says safety and supervision are not problems
Ross denied that a serious student injury, which was alleged in a parent complaint that was obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun, occurred at the school. He also took issue with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission’s report citing parent complaints alleging Peace Valley struggled to maintain a safe school environment and supervision of students.
“That was a report that quite frankly was unfounded,” Ross said.
According to an Oct. 4, 2022 parent complaint, a student suffered “a broken tibia, a torn ligament, a bruised face and potentially a damaged growth plate” after running in an outside play yard at the school and falling on rocks and dirt. The parent alleged the student was sent to the office for an ice pack and finished the day at school, but parents were never contacted, according to the complaint.
Ross said the incident didn’t happen on the school’s campus, and the school has photos that prove the student was healthy while at school.
An Oct. 14, 2022, letter from Thompson to Peace Valley’s school board and administrators states that Peace Valley’s board was first informed of playground safety concerns on Aug. 31, 2018, the year the school opened.
Then on Aug. 10, 2022, Peace Valley’s board was also informed of several safety concerns at the main school building used by students, state records show. Thompson’s Oct. 14 letter states that it does not appear the board corrected all of those concerns within 20 days, as required by state administrative rules.
In a 2022 building safety report, Peace Valley was flagged for having a repeated violation of not having an eye wash station available where corrosive materials could come into contact with students’ eyes. The school was also flagged for having fabric over lights and suspended from the ceilings instead of fire-safe materials. It was also flagged for not having its exit sign illuminated properly.
Previously, Peace Valley had been flagged in 2018 for potential safety hazards related to having a playground without protective surfacing, not having stair rails on a flight of stairs with at least four risers, maintaining walking and working surfaces free of hazards like carpet that produced a tripping hazard and for the fall heights of a piece of playground equipment, state records show.
“Failure to take any of the recommended corrective actions identified below may potentially jeopardize Peace Valley’s charter renewal,” Thompson wrote.
Ross said safety and supervision are extremely important to the school. He also said the building and playground concerns have been addressed in more recent inspections from November 2022.
Ross said almost 75% of Peace Valley’s staff is first aid and CPR trained. He said two to four adults are present supervising each recess, and there is full supervision when students move from place to place in the building. He said the school has completed playground safety inspections and building safety inspections and that Ross and other staff members use radios to enhance communication on the school’s campus, which includes the main building, a recess and outdoor physical education space, a garden and modular classrooms used for the upper grades.
“It’s something that we take very seriously,” Ross said. “Supervision is something that, for me, we do well as a school.”
That said, with 350 students around on a daily basis and Peace Valley’s emphasis on movement, physical activity and being outdoors, Ross said injuries do sometimes occur at the school, just like at other school facilities anywhere else.
“But also we want our kids to be kids. We want them to play,” Ross said. “Sometimes they do play a little harder, if you will, and are very physical with their bodies in that way. But we don’t see any sort of injuries that any other school might see at any point.”
How are Idaho charter school’s evaluated and renewed?
Peace Valley is one 17 Idaho charter schools that will be up for renewal when the Idaho Public Charter School Commission meets at 9 a.m. Feb. 23 at the Joe R. Williams Building in Boise. Of those schools, Peace Valley is one of six charter schools that are up for renewal with conditions. Another 10 schools are up for renewal with no conditions attached, and one school is the subject of a hearing on Feb. 24.
The Idaho Legislature created the Idaho Public Charter School Commission 2004. The commission is now the largest authorizer of public charter schools in the state, with 63 schools authorized. It is made up of seven commissioners who are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders and serve four years terms on the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.
Charter schools that meet all of the terms in their performance certificate must be renewed. But any charter school that fails to meet one or more terms or performance standards from its performance certificate may be considered for non renewal.
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission has used its five-year renewal cycle since 2014, Thompson told the Sun. Since that time, the commission has only not renewed one charter school to come before it, Thompson said.
Thompson is recommending the commission renew Peace Valley’s charter with seven conditions.
If those conditions aren’t met by their deadline, the commission must hold a revocation hearing, where they could decide to revoke Peace Valley’s charter. One condition requires the school to receive full accreditation by July 1, 2024. Another condition is meeting financial measures, including total margin, cash flow, financial compliance and debt-to-asset ratio standards by Nov. 15, 2024. Peace Valley must also meet literacy proficiency standards by Nov. 15, 2024, and meet governance, oversight, compliance and data security conditions by Nov. 15, 2024.
During the upcoming Feb. 23 meeting, the commissioners will be able to hear from Peace Valley officials and vote on whether to accept Thompson’s recommendation to renew the school with conditions, or to renew the charter and impose other conditions on the school. If the commission rejects the consent agreement, it must schedule a full charter renewal hearing with Peace Valley by March 15.
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The commission cannot vote to not renew Peace Valley’s charter during the Feb. 23 meeting. Instead, they would need to reject Thompson’s consent agreement and go the route of scheduling the full charter renewal hearing.
When asked by the Sun, Thompson said she did consider recommending the commission not renew Peace Valley’s charter, but she stands behind her recommendation.
Thompson said her main role is to ensure compliance with the performance charter and help the school succeed.
“Non-renewal was something I really grappled with, but ultimately I wanted to provide an opportunity for those issues to be cured,” Thompson said, stressing her recommendation is only a recommendation and the commission must decide how to move forward.
How did the Idaho Capital Sun report this story?
The Idaho Capital Sun relied on more than 300 pages of public records for this report. Many of the records are posted online and publicly available through the Idaho Public Charter School Commission’s conditional renewal documents. The Idaho Capital Sun also obtained additional records, including parental complaints and police dispatch records from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, under the Idaho Public Records Act. In addition to public records, the Sun also toured the school and conducted lengthy, on-the-record interviews with the director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission and the administrator of Peace Valley Charter School.