Opening day at Kalmiopsis Community Arts High School is Aug. 28 (or 453 hours away, according to the school website’s countdown clock). KCA is the Illinois Valley’s new high school, located in the Hanby Lane neighborhood in Cave Junction. KCA has 26 enrolled students in grades 9, 10 and 11, and a limited number of spaces remain. KCA is a free public charter school operated within Three Rivers School District.
Charter schools are public schools created and run by the community and/or teachers. They abide by the same regulations that govern other public schools, yet have the freedom to develop a unique school culture, academic program and school structure, as long as the charter school follows state law and district requirements. Local teachers Melissa DeNardo, Kaci Elder and Ryan Forsythe will share leadership as teacher leaders; they developed the school alongside teachers Gina Angelique, Sara Kinstler and Kimiko Maglio.
KCA’s school culture is guided by four principles: youth leadership grows genuine confidence, creative expression is a human right, rural communities count and multiple perspectives build a better world. Examples of the philosophy in action include designating two student seats on the KCA school board, traipsing through the woods to Waldo Cemetery with a local historian and integrating the visual, performing and/or literary arts into every course.
Graduation requirements are as rigorous as other Oregon high schools, including the core subjects of English, social studies, math and science, with each core course including creativity, sharing power with students, multiple perspectives and local knowledge as much as possible.
Forsythe will be KCA’s first math teacher. He previously taught math and other subjects through Rogue Community College’s GED program at the Kerby Belt Building, and is now working on his teaching credential through Western Governors University. “Math is a class that so many students struggle with,” he said. “So it’s nice that at KCA, we can mix things up. For example, in geometry class, we’ll spend some time studying mandalas and then create our own. We’ll definitely meet the standards but my belief is that students will have more fun than they’ve experienced in prior math classes.”
DeNardo will be teaching the health and physical education classes at KCA, which will be renamed to holistic wellness (health) and modalities in movement (PE). DeNardo wrote about why she renamed the traditional classes: “I feel like there has always been a bit of a stigma around both of these topics in public school and my thought with a rename was the hope of making them more approachable by the students and students’ families alike. My goal is to focus on inclusion, respect, responsibility and healthy outlooks about one’s whole self (not just the body, but emotional and social self too). Because one of our principles is based in youth leadership, I hope that these classes become a strong foundation for all of our students as they are maturing and evolving. Teaching these subjects has always been a joy for me because it is such a relevant topic for teens – tapping directly into their everyday life.”
Two KCA graduation requirements are unique: more arts courses are required than a typical public school, and there is a required course for all students each semester, Kalmiopsis community class, a democratic meeting where students, under the guidance of teachers, discuss and make decisions about school events, classes, conflict resolution and other areas of importance.
The academic calendar is also unique with three intensives and two semesters. An intensive is a two-week period when students focus on a single subject. This year begins with an arts intensive (students will work with professional artists, either sculpture with Terry Davis or painting with Ariana Jurisic). The year ends with a wilderness studies intensive (a partnership with the Spiral Living Center’s EarthScouts! program), concluding the first year with a hiking or camping trip to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the school’s namesake. The focus of the third intensive, between the fall and spring semesters in late January, will be decided between students and teachers during Kalmiopsis community class.
The Kalmiopsis community extends well beyond the school walls. Sustaining support by Illinois Valley families, educators, artists, naturalists, nonprofit organizations, and others has helped keep the vision alive from the first brainstorming session back in 2013 through and beyond the first day of school. The list of community members who have expressed interest in working with KCA students, spanning all levels of commitment from informal conversations to concrete agreements, includes more than 50 individuals and 20 artistic, naturalistic and community-support organizations.
Although KCA does not offer after-school sports, KCA students can join the sports teams at Illinois Valley High School. Likewise, I.V. High students are welcome to participate in after-school programs at KCA, which tentatively include a speech & debate team, sound healing, and the Movie Club.
“We see Kalmiopsis Community Arts High School as the bohemian younger cousin of Illinois Valley High School,” said Elder, who added that IVHS administrators and staff have been very welcoming and helpful. KCA teachers and IVHS teachers have been meeting over the summer to discuss how the schools can support each other.
As a teacher leader, Elder addressed the yearslong process of creating KCA as being a lesson in imperfection. “We can’t preach to students that it’s okay to make mistakes, but then attempt to hide our own imperfections as adults. We have made many mistakes in the creation of KCA, usually from naivete of the educational system. The school district denied our first attempt in May of 2022 because we weren’t ready. After the rejection, we were despondent for a few weeks and ‘sat with’ strong emotions of failure and frustration until they metamorphosed into a feeling of humble tenacity, like, we’re going to keep going, no matter how imperfectly, and not give up.”
After the denial, Elder taped a copy of the poem “Instructions on Not Giving Up” to the wall, and today uses it as an example of how literature can make us feel less alone in dark times, providing the words of comfort that we couldn’t give to ourselves. The poem, written by Ada Limon, concludes: “Fine then / I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.”
Three months after the rejection, KCA teachers submitted a revised proposal to the school board, and this time the school was approved.
“This project has been a labor of love that our team has been working on relentlessly for three solid years. I am overjoyed by the fact that our dream is becoming a reality. I am extremely excited for opening day, and also feel like there will be a HUGE sense of relief and immense gratitude the moment that our students walk through the front door!” exclaimed DeNardo.
“KCA won’t be perfect, solve every problem of the educational system, or be a good fit for every student. No school can do that,” said Elder. “What we can do, what’s within our power, is to keep hiking up the mountain in the direction of a better world, one where youth are accepted for who they are, just as they are.”
The high school will have free breakfast and lunch provided, and will be prepared from scratch using locally grown and organic ingredients when possible.
A limited number of spaces for grades 9, 10 and 11 are available, with online enrollment at kcahs.org.
DeNardo shared that the enrollment process is similar to a public school and once a student is enrolled at KCA, the family is contacted to set up a time to come and visit the school and meet the staff. “We have a very personalized approach and have worked really hard to connect with as many students/families this summer. We feel that it is so important to start getting to know our KCA community as soon as we can, so that we can start connecting and creating the strong bonds that we believe really carry a healthy community.”