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Inside Capstone Classical Academy, the school the state charter school board might close

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PLEASANT VIEW — Susan Goers, director of Capstone Classical Academy, says the school is one of a kind — providing parents and students with a unique choice, which is a core purpose of the charter school system.

"This is classical curriculum inside a Finnish model," Goers said. It's called "the transformational classical model," which is proprietary, Goers said. She holds the copyright, which hangs on the wall in the front office.

It's a young school, only in its second year of operation.

And it's at risk of having a very short life.

Despite the way that students and parents feel about the school and its model, the Utah State Charter School Board is considering closing it, due to financial difficulties which are rooted in Capstone's lower than expected enrollment.

Designing the Finnish model

The school has sixth-grade classes that are self-contained, but students in grades 7-12 don't have traditional classrooms. They go to four places every day: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), humanities, arts and life skills — each of the blocks is an hour and 45 minutes.

These four blocks are the part of the school that is based on the Finnish model, Goers said.

"The whole idea is you go to STEM — in that hour and 45 minutes that you're in there, you are marrying together science, math, engineering, technology," Goers said. "You may have just had a geometry lesson in a small breakout room, and now you're out here building a robot and working with your physics."

It's so different from other schools that Goers had to work with a local architect, Dan Schmeling of Carbon Architects, to design a building that supported the mixed Classical-Finnish model.

Each of the four blocks — STEM, humanities, arts and life skills — have a "hub" in the school building.

The STEM hub has a large space with breakout rooms on the periphery, because they needed more space to work on robots. The other three hubs have two large spaces with breakout rooms between them, where collaborative groups can work together.

Conservative leanings

Despite drawing on the education model of Finland, which has heavily invested in its welfare state, Capstone is also unabashedly conservative, aligning itself with the conservative movement in the United States. 

A flyer promoting the school, provided by Goers, says that "through proper education, America's young adults can be equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge to revive their nation that was founded on conservative principles of capitalism, empowered liberty, limited government and American virtues.

"... Restore America and make it great again, by committing to educate, empower and equip America's young adults to become the next virtuous and conservative generation."

All students, called scholars at Capstone, take a course called Prudence and Chivalry, where they learn to "keep yourself for whoever it is that you're going to spend your life with — the importance of that," Goers said.

They also learn not to use vile language, Goers said, and the importance of young men opening doors for young women, among other virtues.

Studying the classics

As you travel throughout the school, even in the contained sixth grade classrooms, there are small groups and individual students working on different activities.

"We differentiate our learning," Goers said. "They learn together, but then their application is always differentiated. If you're a super high student, and you can handle more challenge, we're giving it to you. We want to push them outside their comfort zone."

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Students at Capstone Academy study on ground cushions on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

The classical portion of the curriculum is reading classic works — for example, the sixth graders actually read Julius Caesar, unabridged. In late October, they finished children's Homer.

Scholars at Capstone take courses on Latin, logic and rhetoric, communications, the Bible in history and literature, speech and debate and the U.S. Constitution.

"All classical literature — they get a hunger for the classics," Goers said. "... We're not reading Harry Potter, we're reading rich Shakespeare. They can read (Harry Potter) at home."

And scholars at Capstone actually have time to read Harry Potter at home on stop of their studies — because they don't have any homework.

They write reflectively in a journal for 10 minutes in the morning and they write about a topic given to them by teachers for 10 minutes in the afternoon, which they're required to share with their parents, but that's it for their work at home.

"They're not taking home any homework — they're working all day," Goers said.

Scholars keep their work in a portfolio binder, and they have one binder in every hub. The purpose of the portfolio is to showcase their work, Goers said.

Problem-based

"We're based in problem-solving, not project-based," Goers said. "A lot of things in America are project-based, not over there (in Finland). ... So we present (youth) with problems and they have to use their (academic) content to solve the problems."

Goers said that project-based work takes material and turns it into a different form, like creating a movie poster based on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

An example of problem-based work is the geometry class designing, building and funding an octagonal gazebo that can seat 25 people by May 1 — which is something they're actually doing.

Though the scholars will be doing much of the building of the gazebo, Goers won't allow them to use saws, so they need to find enough adults to handle that equipment. They're also in charge of the fundraising for the project.

The scholars in geometry are taking initiative, Goers said, making cold calls and finding materials.

"There are hardware places that I didn't even know exist," Goers said. "I've been here 10 years, and I'm like 'What lumber store? Who's giving you what?' They're like 'Oh yeah, we called this place and we went to this guy...'"

Sixth graders, who are learning the concept of surface area as part of their studies, are helping Goers measure the parking area to determine how much sealant she'll need for the newly paved area.

Those are two of several similar projects at the school.

Personal experiences

Student say the school's model is making a difference for them.

Conner Kap, a sophomore, moved to Capstone from Highland Junior High when his girlfriend moved schools, though they're no longer dating.

Kap was adopted by his grandparents when he was young, due to inadequate care from his parents among other issues, he said.

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Students at Capstone Academy play in a drum circle during music class on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

In sixth grade, he fell into a rough crowd and starting using drugs and drinking alcohol. Capstone has helped him turn things around. He no longer uses drugs, and he's got good grades, he said.

One key factor in his turn-around is the quality his relationships with teachers and his peers. He said that the school is an inclusive place. Nobody's left out.

"In (traditional) public schools, the weird kids are always 'ew, look, it's the nerds,' and they're sent away," Kap said. "We admire them."

The other key factor in his success is his strong sense that the school will help him accomplish his goals.

"If you come here, you can do anything," Kap continued. "You want to become a doctor? You can become a doctor. You want to start working as an astronaut? You want to start doing crazy things? You can do it here. They will push you. Anything's possible."

Parents watching their children develop at the school agree with Kap.

"The change in my daughter has been tremendous," said Chris Ruiz, a parent at the school. "It's not entirely the educational aspect of the school – but don't get me wrong, what they're teaching the kids is amazing, they're rocking the test scores out of the park — but it's the emotional side, the confidence.

"... This school has brought back my daughter's joy in learning and her simple joy in life altogether," Ruiz continued. "When school ended for the summer, she was disappointed. She didn't want to go on summer break, and she was excited as heck to start school again."

Uncertain future

Capstone is projected to have an almost $450,000 deficit by the end of the fiscal year and could run out of money midway through the year, according to a presentation by SCSB staff at an SCSB meeting on Oct. 10.

However, the school has a strong track record when it comes to fundraising, and Capstone will have raised $300,000 by January — if the school is able to secure enough donations to match a $100,000 donation from an anonymous donor.

The school is also actively seeking additional students to enroll, Goers said.

Goers and other school leadership will make their case to remain open in a hearing before the state charter board on Monday, Dec. 9.

The board will make its decision on Capstone's future later that same week on Dec. 12.

At that meeting, the board could vote to close the school as early as the end of the semester, in early January, according to Jennifer Lambert, executive director at SCSB.

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Capstone Academy on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

Ruiz is so committed to keeping the school open, she has recruited family and friends to make donations, as have other families at the school. She and her husband, Tom, are also donating $2,000 to the cause.

"With a school that is doing all the amazing educational things that our school is doing, and us having managed to raise twice as much money to keep our doors open last year — just the logic behind their statement and their move, I can't wrap my brain around it," Ruiz said. " ... What is the point of the charter board? Is it money or is it education? I'm really not sure anymore."

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