Deep in the woods of northern Washington County, 167 elementary students are taking classes at one of Minnesota’s newest charter schools.
It’s there, in a leafy setting resembling everyone’s favorite summer camp, that River Grove has taken root.
“Studying in Wilder Forest is magical. It feels like you’re in the wilderness,” said volunteer Stephanie LeGros, referring to the school’s setting in a conservation area north of Stillwater. “It feels like this place has come alive with the children being here in this beautiful setting.”
River Grove, known officially as Marine Area Community School, has built its curriculum on environment, arts, civic involvement and the rich history of nearby Marine on St. Croix. The K-6 school is housed in several cottages leased from Concordia Language Villages.
Many of the children enrolled at River Grove came from two elementary schools in Marine and Hugo that recently closed in a controversial decision by the Stillwater school district. Students also come from Forest Lake, Stillwater, Lake Elmo and Maplewood.
Planning for River Grove began in the spring of 2015, about nine months before the district announced the school closings. One of the founders, parent and board member Kristina Smitten, said they had planned to proceed regardless of the acrimonious closing dispute.
“The start of the charter school wasn’t born out of that tension,” she said. “It was never that the district is bad and we want something that is good.”
But the extended controversy left many “hurt feelings” among parents, said Brian Mader, whose daughter Elizabeth attends first grade at River Grove. Founders of the school worked hard “not to organize it on spite, to resist that urge and really make it about the kids,” he said.
River Grove has a $1.77 million budget this school year, and receives general education funding from the state and a federal grant given to startup schools. One of three new Minnesota charter schools this fall, its authorizer is Minnesota Guild of Charter Schools of Minneapolis, which will report on River Grove’s performance to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Marcy Ost of May Township was one of several volunteers who spent the summer cataloging 6,500 donated books for River Grove’s school library. She recalls feeling overwhelmed at seeing “thousands of books piled on the floor.”
She later came across the children’s book series “Heartwood Hotel,” tales about animals who “come from far and wide” to live in a hotel in fictional Fernwood Forest. Ost, whose third-grade son, Remy, attends River Grove, recognized the book’s relevance to the school in Wilder Forest.
“I thought, what a perfect book to have in our library,” she said.
The library is housed in the commons area next to the music room and cafeteria. It is in the middle of five leased buildings, spaced camp-style, where students and teachers move back and forth over leaf-strewn trails.
To one side is Sun Lodge, with first and second grades, and Earth Lodge, which has an upper floor office, kindergarten and third grade on the lower level. To the other side is Meeting House, which has sixth grade. Farther away, a cottage named Clearing has third, fourth and fifth grades.
Students go to recess in a valley shaded by towering red pines. On a recent morning, laughter echoed in the natural amphitheater as kids played games with teachers and volunteers. River Grove doesn’t yet have a physical education teacher, but it’s shopping for someone who has “outdoor recreation interests,” Smitten said.
Learning outdoors is a cornerstone of the school’s mission. Having the school in a forest and along a trail leading to Warner Nature Center encourages students to explore nature, she said.
Snow and ice won’t keep kids indoors. The school plans to offer skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and sledding.
“I told my kids, you get a rare opportunity to go to school in a wilderness area,” said LeGros, of Stillwater. She is a winter sports enthusiast who has two sons in the school, third-grader Jack and fifth-grader James. “Once people find out about this school, it will be a real draw.”
River Grove is a “teacher-powered” school, meaning teachers plan the curriculum while administrator Drew Goodson oversees operations. Although school enrollment is 33 students short of its licensed capacity of 200, “It’s important to walk before we run,” said Smitten, whose daughter, Addie, attends fifth grade at River Grove.
Teachers offer a range of experience, from a 27-year veteran to a rookie. Only third grade has two sections, and first and second grades have a waiting list. The smallest class is sixth grade, where teacher Adam Johnson coached his students through a math lesson last week, joking with them about figuring ratios.
On the door was a note: “I am right 97 percent of the time. Who cares about the other 4 percent?”
In another cottage-like building, special education teacher Molly Kaliher was reading as two boys sprawled on a bunk bed in what once was a campus bedroom. Her rescue dog, a school legend named Hope, listened to the stories.
Brad Blue, a representative of the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, said River Grove teaches the required state standards while putting lessons in the context of the scenic and historic St. Croix Valley. “It’s delivered in the community, for the community, by the community,” he said. “We think they are doing a remarkable and very difficult job.”
Parent volunteer Ost said she promised to do whatever she could to make the new school successful.
“There are so many things that need to be done for a new school and people have stepped up, in a big way,” she said. “It’s a marvelous atmosphere with all those parents chipping in and helping. It really is all about the community out there.”