As we look towards Fresno City Summit 2015 we wanted to let you know about the amazing transformation that is happening on the campus of Cornerstone Church where City Summit will be hosted.
God is doing something new in our city and is rebuilding what has been broken. Kepler Neighborhood School is an example of a something that has offered a new sense of hope to the future of elementary education in urban Fresno.
Kepler Neighborhood School which is currently housed on the campus of Cornerstone Church has grown up fast in its first two years. The school is very much like an elementary student: young, learning at a rapid pace, trusting, influenced greatly by it’s surroundings. But this school is different than others, just like all kids.
Kepler was birthed by Valerie Blackburn and Shiela Skibbie after years of thoughtful prayer and careful planning. Their guiding question through the past several years of planning and implementing has been: What helps children learn? Their answer has been: let’s do whatever that looks like. That means starting where individual students are in their learning and working from there.
Shiela Skibbie (left), Dr. Christine Montanez (center) & Valerie Blackburn (right)
Valerie serves as Kepler’s Curriculum and Teaching Coordinator, Dr. Christine Montanez serves as Kepler’s Principal, while Shiela serves as Vice-Principal and office manager. Valerie and Shiela came to the place of founding a charter school from different paths, but found each other along the way.
Valerie taught at Jefferson Elementary east of the Lowell School District. She then home schooled her children for 10 years before returning to the public school classroom. Something had happened in the 10 years she was out of the classroom. She didn’t like it. Teachers are now too restricted, she said. Teaching and learning were no longer a joy. It has become a chore for teachers, students and parents.
Shiela moved to Lowell in 1998 after being part of the founding group at the Pink House. Her husband, Steve, and she were involved in InterVarsity Leadership. She also lead reading and Bible clubs at the World Impact building before becoming a public school teacher in Selma. She left the classroom to stay home with her first born; returned to teaching at Valley Art and Science Academy; then chose to stay home with her second born also. That’s when she decided she wanted to start her own charter school.
Together they spent two years writing the charter for Kepler and are fast approaching the end of their second year as a charter school.
Under the charter, the focus at Kepler is on small group, project-based and service-learning from Kindergarten through Eighth grade. That means every grade level is taught more like a Kindergarten class – kids move from station to station, working on projects at their own pace with guidance from teachers. Subjects are integrated, rather than separated. It also means that teachers and students don’t work toward passing tests, they apply learning to neighborhood needs.
Each grade level has an annual theme. For example, Kepler’s 8th Grade class theme is “Extreme City Revitalization.”
Jessica Mast teaches the 8th grade class and she had a love for downtown Fresno before she decided to get into teaching. She went through the Pink House in 2010 after first living in the area for a year. She moved to the Lowell Neighborhood while she was a Youth Pastor at Onramps Church.
She loves that she gets to walk home from work and that the school has a real connection to the community that doesn’t exist in traditional schools. The school cares about downtown and the surrounding community, Jessica said. She added that Kepler exists to grow people who love Fresno. The four walls of the classroom are permeable in both directions. Students experience downtown with regular walking field trips and downtown comes to the classroom as students need.
To illustrate how small groups, projects and service-learning come together at Kepler, here is what Jessica’s 8th graders are doing throughout their final year of elementary school.
Kepler 8th graders:
study historical buildings in Fresno,
create computer models of buildings,
study their architects and purposes,
write letters to city council about what to do with the old buildings,
talk to town hall meetings about their findings,
and write a business plan for a product to sell at Peeve’s Public House.
Not only is the classroom different, affecting the student experience. But the connection to the community is much closer, also affecting the student experience. Classes take regular walking tours within a 2.5 mile radius of the school. Valerie shared that students have visited and interacted with Ivan Paz’ martial arts, CMAC, Pink House, FIFUL, World Impact, IdeaWorks, Peeve’s Public House and other businesses along the Fulton Mall. Many downtown community people also visit the school to lend guidance to students.
Jessica shared some of the story of a Lowell kid who is getting guidance at Kepler, church and neighborhood development, when he would most likely slip through the cracks of a traditional school. This particular kid comes from a family with former gang affiliations, but has chosen to break those old gang ties. But still a boy feels the pull between being a good student and the pull of the gang life.
This is a “neighborhood” school. Fresno High Schools will be lucky to get these kids who know and love Fresno. The Fresno community will be lucky to get these kids who know and love Fresno also.
This young school is growing up fast! The school-neighborhood tie is so much stronger than at a traditional school.
It appears that if Kepler stays on it’s successful trajectory, it will meet those challenges with the same vigor, spirit and community support that helps a child be successful in life.
Come to Fresno City Summit 2015 to hear similar stories of transformation in individual lives and our institutions!