New Anchorage charter middle school to connect kids to nature, community

Josephine Stone tries to catch insects in the icy creek. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Howell.)
Josephine Stone tries to catch insects in the icy creek. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Howell.)

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After five years of work, a new middle school is opening in East Anchorage this fall, if the school can attract enough students. The Stream Academy is focused on getting kids out of the classroom and doing hands-on research projects. The founders gave prospective students and their parents a taste of their teaching methods over the weekend.

A group of soon-to-be sixth graders stand by a partially frozen stream by Begich Middle School with 4-H and Cooperative Extension environmental educator and sometimes-singer Kay Shoemaker.

“I got no bones in my back! Don’t you understand me?” sings Shoemaker and the students respond with the same. “I’m an invertebrate. You can squishy-squash me.”

The students getting a taste of a typical lesson at the Stream Academy, a science, technology, engineering, and math-focused charter school that’s slated to open this fall, though they aren’t actually squashing any bugs. Just catching them.

Fifth-grader Josephine Stone grabs a metal pole with a cone-shaped net on the end, takes it down to the water, and thumps it against the rocks and ice.

“I am looking for the insects under the rocks. I’m pushing the rocks and all the frozen ice around to get them out of their habitat where they’re living,” she explains. She says it’s fun. “I’m excited to see if I got anything.”

A few bugs lurk at the bottom of her net. Josephine says she plays in creeks in the summer but has never tried fishing out insects before. She says she likes it, though she’s not quite as enthusiastic about the program as her mom, Jennifer.

“I love it,” Stone says. “It’s different, and I think it would be great for Josephine. She’s a very hands on learner. But encouraging her to like the program as much as me is a different story.”

Stone says her daughter wants to go to school with all of her friends and have a typical middle school experience. And the Stream Academy won’t exactly be “typical.” Whitney D’Atri, one of the school’s founders, says the school is based around the district’s standard core curriculum for 6th to 8th graders.

“Our difference is the way we approach the content,” D’Atri says. “We’re working in a lot of interdisciplinary and community projects, and the big ‘R’ of research within the name Stream.”

Their students will be outside exploring the environment and working in groups that span all three grade-levels. D’Atri says they want the students to develop the social skills they’ll need for collaborating with others throughout life and learn about different career options.

Co-founder Andranel Brown says the school is also focused on building a sense of connection, not just to the natural environment but also to the Anchorage community.

Payton Hammon (r) and Hailey Parmenter (l) play with a hissing cockroach at the Stream Academy preview day. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Howell.)
Payton Hammon (r) and Hailey Parmenter (l) play with a hissing cockroach at the Stream Academy preview day. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Howell.)

“And a huge part of what makes Anchorage the amazing place it is, is the diversity of the cultures. In order to make that easier to happen, we wanted the building to be located on the east side because that’s where the density of the diversity is in this city.”

The school is renting space at the Wayland Baptist University Campus, which can be reached by major bus lines. As a charter school they won’t provide transportation. They’re also weighing the lottery system so that at least 30 percent of the students come from the nearby neighborhoods.

Brown says they offer other enticements, too. “You get to pet cockroaches from time to time,” she says, pointing to a box of hissing insects that she doesn’t intent to touch.

Stream Academy’s board is in the process of hiring a principal who will then hire teachers. The school needs at least 75 students to open its doors in August. The Anchorage School District Lottery closes on March 24. The school will host another preview day on March 5.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne