KINGS VALLEY — Taking a stroll around the Kings Valley Charter School campus Friday afternoon, Executive Director Jamon Ellingson points toward an upgraded athletic field. On another part of campus, a wooden, hand-painted sign identifies the "Kings Valley Community Garden" where a new greenhouse now sits. Not far away, a Honeydew Construction truck pours dirt onto a site where a structure will be built to protect a new water system.
Although the fourth-year director talks about the school's direction with pride, it's the people that he beams about the most. Students of all ages play outside to grab a bit of exercise after lunch from the girls who see how high they can go on the swings to a group of boys who don't let a little mud stop them from playing soccer.
"I'm proud of the people and the community that make our school a great place," Ellingson said about the parents they have become a part of the KVCS community. "Their efforts and support are critical to our success."
It's been a sometimes-bumpy road for the rural school. The Philomath School District's board voted in April 2001 to close the rural school but the Kings Valley community responded with 35 people on nine committees working together to write a charter proposal and the campus remained open. Later, grade levels were added to serve all ages.
Over the years, the school district and KVCS have worked through difficult, sometimes contentious, issues with Kings Valley even considering just a few years ago the idea of getting into a charter agreement with the Falls City School District. But through meetings, improved communication and a new agreement on pass-through funding from the state, it appears the school and district have an improved relationship.
The district and charter school are currently operating within a 10-year agreement that would expire in June 2022. As a public charter school, there is no tuition and in addition, Ellingson said students don't pay fees.
With the financial challenges that many schools see, Ellingson described KVCS's financial situation as stable.
"It definitely has helped to form a strong relationship with our district and have a favorable funding model with them to where we're able to have more access to more funds," he said. "It was fantastic that we were able to work on our relationship and work through that."
In relation to money, Ellingson said one priority is to pay staff better.
"One of the main things that we did with our funding increase with the district is we saw an opportunity to increase salaries," Ellingson said. "We're not up with what the district is for salaries. I would imagine we'll work to have another increase in that area to compensate staff. ... There is kind of a cool benefit for being out here and being part of that experience but at the same time, people need to pay their bills and live and that is important to us."
Ellingson said the school district and charter school will continue to meet at least a couple of times a year for board work sessions to discuss issues.
"The feeling that I have is a feeling of support — what are your needs ... here are some areas that we see that you could use some help in, how can we help?" Ellingson said. "That's been really nice."
Kings Valley has a rich history in education that according to a refurbished sign that will be going up at the school, dates clear back to 1848. Historical research by Marlene McDonald published in her book, "When School Bells Rang," indicates that there has been five different buildings in two locations in the valley. Based on that information, it appears that a school first went up near the junction of Kings Valley Highway and Maxfield Creek Road in 1892.
Ellingson, who has been at KVCS for nine years — the first five as a science teacher and the last four as executive director — believes parents that enroll their children are just really looking for that small-school experience.
"The thought that we're a rural environment, I think people like that aspect as well," Ellingson said. "We do have smaller class sizes than in town."
The school draws families from Independence, Monmouth, Dallas and the Philomath and rural Benton County region. Ellingson estimated about half of the student population lives in the Philomath School District and the other half are from other districts.
A student enrollment cap of 207 is in place and KVCS currently sits at 205.
"That will fluctuate from year to year depending on where the students are," Ellingson said. "This year, we're down a couple only because we have, I think we're at 17 in our kindergarten and we have a smaller senior class this year. It's hard to fill a class of seniors because those students are usually by that point settled wherever they are."
The school has five seniors this academic year. Ellingson said typically, the senior class numbers 11 to 13 students.
"Our wait list continues to grow; the rate at which we're getting kids on the list continues to increase," Ellingson said. "It definitely runs a cycle a little bit. Our elementary, that's probably where we have the most demand."
KVCS also has a small preschool on campus with room for an enrollment of eight children.
"We have a high demand for our preschool," he said. "We'd like to be able to bring in more and serve more of the community."
The school is trying to figure out what to do with an old house on campus to serve that program.
"We're at that point where does it make sense to remodel and restore it today's standards or does it make sense to tear it down and start over?" Ellingson said. "That's the point where we are."
Ellingson last month presented his annual report to the Philomath School Board with various positives pointed out.
"The number of kids attempting AP (advanced placement) tests ... the kids challenging themselves to do something hard was good," Ellingson said when asked about some areas that he's most proud of over the past year. "One of the things we also wanted to work on is improving our attendance rate — we've struggled there in previous years for all different kinds of reasons. But we saw an increase, an improvement there, and we'll continue to work on that and see if we can get better."
Ellingson also sees indicators of growth in student academic achievement that he expects will be more visible in the coming years.
"We have a new math curriculum this year that aligns more with the scope and sequence of what you would expect in a traditional school as well as it has the math literacy that you would see across the nation," he said. "We've had some kids where their critical thinking skills were fantastic, they could go and do math, but when it came to showing it in an assessment, the same words weren't being used.
"We do find that a lot of our kids that move on and go on to high school or college, they're able to find success," he added.
Some data in the KVCS report identified areas of concern. Ellingson said the school has been adjusting through enrollment that bumped up from 185 two years ago to the 205 it has today.
"Number one, we were getting kids that were new to us and we need to figure them out as well as having those students figure out their expectations as they come here," he said. "I think that was a bit of an interesting point with our data. But I also think we've made adjustments looking at that data and seeing where we can make improvements and that math curriculum was one of those."
Among the other areas, the school recently implemented a positive behavior program.
"You're focusing on the behaviors that you want to see from kids," Ellingson said. "Basically, it's aligning with one another on what we'd like to see and then the systems in place so we can be efficient with our processes and stuff. It's been helping a ton."
Various other programs have been implemented or expanded, from engaging electives to culinary arts to gardening.
"The greenhouse is to help support our elementary gardening program," he said about one of the campus's newest structures. "It's also to help look to the future with our community ag program as well for our middle school and high school students."
Instructor Diana Barnhart believes in the value of hands-on opportunities.
"It's not just a skill but there is nothing like caring for animals or crops that teach children the value of hard work," Barnhart said. "That is really one of the things that kids are missing to be able to motivate themselves intrinsically so that they are successful and gardening and agriculture are terrific tools to do that."
An after-school program has been a way for students to grow.
"The kids are having great experiences and they're having opportunities to build relationships with each other and adults and focus on providing service for the community," he said.
In the area of facilities, a needed improvement revolved around the school's water system. An old well could not keep up with demand and the school needed to have water delivered a few times a year.
"Having a reliable source of water for us out here is really important," Ellingson said. "So we have drilled a new well and it gets eight times more of what the capacity is of this one and with the water storage, we'll be in a really good place to provide water consistently from here on out."
KVCS recently improved its athletic field with replanting and the addition of a wood-chip surfaced track through Parent-Teacher Organization funding and donated time. Ellingson said there's more to come with ideas such as dugouts, soccer goals and perhaps an obstacle course or other things for students to enjoy.