By Joseph Robertia
When Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science opened as a kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school in 2004, the teachers hoped to offer the best educational practices and instruction they could to the 88 students that inaugural year. Since then the school’s enrollment has grown to 252 students, but the commitment to excellence remains the same, evidenced by Kaleidoscope receiving a National Blue Ribbon School award.
“To me, this validates the hard work that goes into making the right choices for kids,” said Robin Dahlman, principal at Kaleidoscope for the past five years.
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes outstanding schools annually, selecting ones in which, “Their leaders not only articulate a vision of excellence and hold everyone to high standards, they stay close to the real action of teaching and learning. Mutual respect and trust run deep in their cultures. Faculty are supported by mentoring and professional development and have time to coordinate their work. Data from many sources drive adaptations to support every student. Families and educators work together in trust.”
This year, 285 public and 50 private schools were honored during the award ceremony earlier this month. Kaleidoscope was one of only three schools in Alaska to receive the honor, and one of only 15 charter schools recognized nationally. Dahlman, along with Kelli Stroh and Nicole Shelden, two teachers at the school since its founding, flew to Washington, D.C., last week to accept the award.
“The past 11 years have been a privilege to embark on such an exciting journey of teaching through the arts and sciences,” Stroh said. “Our school is very honored to be recognized for thinking outside the box. The award is not only for our school but the entire Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Our school district was just put on the national map for school of excellence.”
Schools are usually recognized in one of two categories — closing a wide gap between low- and high-performing students, or, as with Kaleidoscope, exemplary high performance over a five-year period.
Dalman said there are many core elements of what makes Kaleidoscope stand out, but first and foremost is its emphasis on arts and science.
“At Kaleidoscope’s core lies the idea that children construct knowledge through an interaction between their own ideas and the life experiences to which they are exposed. The engine that feeds children these life experiences is a deep integration of the arts — dance, music, drama and the visual arts — and science, into all aspects of our academic curriculum. Decisions about what, when and how to emphasize the experiences built into our curriculum are made collaboratively at Kaleidoscope, by all members of our staff. Our classrooms are not defined by walls, but by the space we share,” Dahlman said.
Scientific principles are infused and extracted from every subject the students learn.
“Every opportunity to integrate science with every other curricular area is pursued. Integrated science learning extends from the science lab into classrooms, the nature trail, gym, playground and all around the community,” Dahlman said. “We emphasize inquiry, dialogue and reflection at all grade levels, to examine new ideas and probe beyond fact gathering. We emphasize process over product. Products produced by children are viewed as celebrations along the way, not an end in themselves.”
The school also emphasizes what Dahlman calls “being there” experiences.
“Our students frequent our large outdoor classroom in our school’s habitat and trail that leads to a local creek. Here students make connections between what they learn — from one of our most beloved partnerships with the Kenai Watershed Forum — and the natural ecosystems that exist between the woods, the creek and ultimately the ocean just less than a half mile walk from our front door,” she said.
Dahlman said the award is for the entire school community.
“It’s no individual award. This happens when everyone is on the same page and moving the same direction — students, staff, parents, board, everyone,” she said.