Tomorrow River Charter School flourishes at CWES
A red squirrel darted between trees as the sound of children laughing carried through the woods. A small blond-haired girl with a knit monster cap dipped the toe of her pink rubber boot into a puddle pooled from melted ice. In a cabin-like classroom down the hill, children read, knitted and shared stories.
It is a typical day at the Tomorrow River Community Charter School in Amherst Junction.
“I like that we can go outside more, and there’s a lot of art and we get to make a lot of stuff,” fourth-grader Rowen Brunett said, describing her favorite class, “hand work.” In that class, students learn knitting and sewing among other hands on projects that incorporate math through patterns.
“It’s a really fun way of learning,” she said.
In its third year, the school is located within the 200 acres of Central Wisconsin Environmental Station and holds more than 100 students in grades prekindergarten through sixth grade. Last month, the Tomorrow River School District Board voted to eliminate the sixth grade next year, which means the five fifth-graders in the school this year will have to transition back into their home school districts a year early.
“It was a very difficult decision,” said Chamomile Nusz, school coordinator. “And certainly those parents are disappointed, but those students have always been with higher level kids, so developmentally it wouldn’t be fair … they would be repeating a lot of information.”
Losing that grade level for one year certainly is not an indication that the school’s interest is waning. The nearly 110 students attend school from across central Wisconsin, with about half of the population from Stevens Point area, about a quarter from Amherst area and the remainder spread across Portage, Waupaca and Waushara counties.
Already the school has a waiting list for its prekindergarten level, and applications for the school will be taken until the end of March, the same as area-wide open enrollment. Should other grade levels wind up with a waiting list, there will be a random lottery, Nusz said.
The school is inspired by Waldorf education, which is an educational philosophy of developing the whole child through movement, art and nature. The approach is development based, uses a premise of allowing children to use their imagination and creativity, and there is an emphasis on environmental stewardship, so children begin early fostering a care for and understanding of the environment and the world around them.
Each day typically starts with a nature hike and circle time, in which students go through movement exercises. There are 77 raised beds in the garden that the children harvest, and chickens in the coop provide eggs that the students collect and then use in meal preparation.
Such life skills begin at a young age, Nusz said. Prekindergarten and kindergarten focuses on social, emotional and behavioral lessons and self-directed learning, whereby teachers and other adults are more role modeling for the youngsters than seating them at tables going over the alphabet and numbers.
Two buildings are new this year, and there are plans to construct two more classroom buildings as well as a larger building across the street to house an auditorium and office among other educational space, Nusz said. It all is part of the goal to have a self-sustaining prekindergarten through eighth grade school site.
The children learning in this setting already think it’s the bees’ knees.
“There’s a lot of visual learning, and it’s a lot of games,” fourth-grader Shade Kaiser said.
There are the standard subjects – math, language arts, reading, science, social studies, physical education, art, music and foreign language – just taught in a different manner, one that incorporates many aspects of one another. For example, math is taught through hand-clapping songs and sewing patterns; art and science combine in skits, and writing and study skills are learned as students put together their own text books.
“A larger concept is always attached to the subject,” Nusz said. “The idea with that is if we’re really touching kids in an emotional way where they’re excited about what they learn they will retain that information better and it will mean more to them.”
The classrooms, each one in its own cabin-like setting, feature artwork on the walls and as many natural elements as possible. For example, the rugs are wool and there are items like silk cloths with which the children can create scenes or dress up. Decorative pieces also use nature like branches and pine cones.
One of the best aspects of the school, teachers and children alike say, is teachers continue through the grade levels with the same children, so the teacher a child has in first grade will remain with that child/class each grade thereafter until graduation in eighth grade.
“It’s one of the best things,” said Emily Conner, who teaches a combined second- and third-grade class. “I get to develop a great relationship with them and their parents. The parents know and trust you, so it’s easier to address any issues, and I noticed this year it was easier to get going. They know what I expect of them.”
That connection, which happens between the students and all adults involved with them, is part of what develops the child’s skills, from the academic to the social and emotional, so the students know they are safe, Nusz said.