Tonto Village Charter’S Enrollment Jumps

School parlays looser rules into small classes

Isabella Stewart shows off her contribution to the Shelby School’s Biome Project.

Isabella Stewart shows off her contribution to the Shelby School’s Biome Project. Photo by Michele Nelson. |

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The Shelby Charter School in Tonto Village has enjoyed a surge of growth this year as Payson parents seeking small classes for their children have left the Payson Unified School District.

Freed from many burdensome state regulations, the Shelby School boasts class sizes that average 10 and a strong focus on the arts.

As a result, enrollment surged by 15 this year to 55, in the wake of Payson Schools’ budget woes that led to the closure of Frontier Elementary School and a big increase in elementary school class sizes to 28 in many cases.

Although the tiny charter school lacks many of the extracurricular activities found in regular public schools, administrators there have taken advantage of the much greater flexibility the state has given charters to keep classes small and teacher contact high.

The only publicly funded alternative elementary through high school in the Rim Country, the Shelby School boasts five buildings, two buses, a nationally-renowned chess club, a Princeton-educated teacher, a former NFL player turned instructor and an administrator with a background in developmental psychology — all while functioning as a public school with no tuition.

“Our charter is approved for kindergarten through 10th-graders,” said Ezra Stuyvesant, the school administrator. The school has just 55 students and most classes average about 10.

Stuyvesant looks as though he could walk the halls of an Ivy League university. Tall and bespectacled, attired in neat, but relaxed clothes, he has a comfortable, professorly way about him. As one of the founding members of the school, his pride in the tiny school emanates from every word he speaks.

“We focus on the total developmental approach,” he said. “We hope to encourage the social-emotional growth of the child, as well as their academics.”

Something does feel different on the campus. Take Princeton-educated art and social studies teacher Elizabeth Fowler for instance.

Lithe, curly haired and usually wearing a floppy hat, she makes a point of learning the interests, preference in classes and life goals of every student.

Fowler can list pretty much every innate interest for each student, since she sees each one at least weekly. She told the story of one student who came to the Shelby School with the goal of becoming a lawyer.

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A gaggle of Shelby School students gather in the play yard of the school in Tonto Basin

“The school partnered with a local lawyer to create an internship and now that student is in law school and very happy,” she said.

The state gives charter schools a lot more flexibility, especially when it comes to teacher qualifications. At charter schools, the state allows teachers to take a test to prove they’re “highly qualified” in at least one subject — although they can also then teach other subjects. They don’t have to get formal certification like other public school teachers. Traditional school districts must use certified teachers who have taken college-level courses dedicated to teaching how to teach. For instance, a university English professor or a best-selling author who wanted to teach at Payson High School would have to go back to school to get a credential.

The different teacher requirements make it much easier for the Shelby School to reach out to the community for instructors. “We attempt to fulfill the needs of each individual student,” said Fowler. “If we don’t have the capability, we find it and create it.”

“This philosophy has affected the children and gives the small campus a different feel. Take Ecko Helmick for example, spotted walking across campus with two fuzzy raccoon-like ears lashed onto her head with a bright red bandana. A bushy tail clipped onto her jeans completed the outfit.

“Hi,” said Ecko to Fowler. “Did you know I’m about to get a wolf pup?”

“I had no idea,” said Fowler.

As Ecko chatted on about the wolf pup.

“Ecko loves animals,” smiled Fowler as she watched Ecko run off, “But she hopes to study paleontology in college.”

The tiny student body makes it easy for Fowler to get to know each student, although the school’s growing fast — up 15 from last year.

Stuyvesant said many of the new parents cited the Payson School District’s decision to increase elementary school class sizes when the board shut down Frontier as a big reason for their transfer. They shifted to the Shelby School for the small class sizes and teacher interactions.

Yet a small school can have its drawbacks, too. The school can’t offer many extracurricular activities for students in the high school grades. For example, the Shelby School does not have a music program. Nor does the school have an athletic team.

Still, the close-knit community allows teachers to cater to the students’ needs, like a Biome project in Fowler’s class. “For one and a half months we focused on deserts,” she said.

She worked with other teachers in each discipline to coordinate a schoolwide presentation on what the students found on the geography, climate zones, plants, animals and people of the desert regions of the world. The students all determined the perspective they wished to look at the subject matter.

“Ecko became a paleontologist from the Gobi Desert,” said Fowler. “She did a timeline wrapped around the room (to describe her findings).”

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