Durango's newest charter, Mountain Middle School, opened its doors in August. With only room for 156 students, the school proved so popular that it had to hold a lottery for open seats. Next year's lottery is already under way./Photo by Steve Eginoire

What are the odds?

Mountain Middle School opens lottery registration
The Bottom Line: Mountain Middle still in need of cash


by Tracy Chamberlin

Charters are schools of choice. And since Durango opened its first charter middle school last August, parents and students have been clamoring for a chance to make that choice.

“There isn’t one size that fits all,” said Mark Epstein, president of the board of directors at Mountain Middle School in Durango. “But now we have a school of choice.”

The drawback is space. Like riverbanks and fresh powder, there’s only so much to go around.
Mountain Middle School only has 168 seats – a number  based on square footage and mandated by state law. So, like many charter schools, it turned to a lottery system. Although some will win and some will lose, because it is a public school, anyone can enroll.

And interest in enrolling has been high, not just for students but for faculty as well. The school received 250 resumes for the 15 open teaching positions.

“The idea was to find the right match,” Nancy Heleno, vice president on the school’s Board of Directors, said of the hiring process. “It is very different teaching in a model of project-based learning.”

Mountain Middle is based on the successful High Tech High model, which is also the basis for Animas High School. Project-based learning teaches students by combining subjects and applying them to real-world situations and technology, rather than the common textbook-based method.

“It’s a completely different way of thinking about learning,” Epstein said. 4 “The kids are going to come out of this school with real tools.”

According to Heleno, the school’s charter is based on three tenants: school culture, academic excellence and teacher-student interaction, which serve as the school’s driving force and road map. And, so far, the approach seems to be working.

“Our kids are happy, they feel safe, they feel secure,” Epstein said. “And they are performing above what’s required of them academically.”

Each year, 56 seats will be available for Mountain Middle’s sixth grade. The seats available for the seventh and eight grades will depend on how many students advance or leave the school. If no one leaves, no seats would be available.

Aside from taking their chances with the lottery, students have three ways of become exempt from the lottery. The first is for children and grandchildren of board members prior to December 2010. Even if they haven’t been born yet, they will be offered a seat at Mountain Middle. The second exemption is for younger sibling of students already enrolled at Mountain Middle. The third, and possibly most controversial, way to become exempt is through volunteer hours. Families need to complete 75 hours of volunteer work to earn lottery exempt status, which is done on a first-come, first-served basis.

Heleno said the Board of Directors is sensitive to the fact that it is difficult for some working families to volunteer 75 hours and do it quickly. Therefore, volunteer hours are flexible, and the required tasks are varied, including everything from cleaning and planting flowers to creating flyers or carpentry.

This did not make the past year any easier for Heleno. She said several families competed for the lottery-exempt spaces, but not all got the spot. “It was actually difficult to watch,” she admitted.

Family members and friends are allowed to help accrue the hours. However, they are required to sign a document stating they are not being compensated for their time. Even stepparents must sign this document. If the school discovers a violation, the student can be expelled.

Since charter schools do not receive the funding that public schools do, the state wanted to help by allowing lottery-exempt seats, thus encouraging volunteer work. Realizing that some parents work and are unable to volunteer, the number of seats available through volunteering was limited to 20 percent. When it comes to the sixth grade, that amounts to 11. In the seventh and eighth grades, it would be 20 percent of however many seats are available. If only one was available, then no seats would be lottery exempt.
Josh Dalley has a discussion with a sixth-grade advisory group Wednesday morning at Mountain Middle School, which opened its doors in August 2011 and is about to graduate its first class of students./Photo by Steve Eginoire

The lottery-exempt volunteer seats for the 2012-13 school year already have been filled, and nine families have earned an exemption for the 2013-14 school year, which means only two spots are available. And, a few families have already begun accruing hours toward those exemptions.

This leaves only the lottery for most. The lottery drawing will be held at 10 a.m. March 7 for all three grades and the results posted online by midnight. The drawing will be supervised by one notary public, two board members and two “objective community members” chosen by the board.
Once the lottery is complete, families will be sent registration packets in a tiered system, which allows the school time to make sure it doesn’t send a registration packet before it’s verified the seat is available.

And while every student who enters the lottery is not guaranteed a spot, at least it offers a choice  – a choice not available just a couple years ago.

For more information on Mountain Middle School, go to http://www.mountainmiddleschool.org or call 828-5600.


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