Tucked away in Stillwater’s North Hill neighborhood is piece of American education history. The New Heights school is celebrating its 25th school year this year — the oldest kindergarten through 12th grade charter school in the country.

The school has been under the watchful eye of administrator Tom Kearney for 22 years.

“We started when nobody really knew what a charter school was,” Kearney said. He pointed to a photo that hanging in the front office of the school of the first class of about two dozen students in the fall of 1992.

“Since then, charter schools are in 46 states in the country, about 7,100 schools and 3.1 million students,” Kearney said. “We took a lot of those first darts — the legislation about charter schools was so loose back then — so we had to blaze a trail.”

Kearney explained that the goal of New Heights was to try a different approach to education that what was being provided in the public school setting. Class sizes are smaller and the school has a student populations between 140 and 170 students on average — every teacher and staff person can recognize a student by name.

“We don’t think we are a better school; we might just be a better school for you,” Kearney said.

In the beginning, the Stillwater Area Public School was the charter school’s authorizer and has leased the school’s building — the Washington School — to the charter school for the first 24 years. Kearney said that they have always had a good relationship with the district.

“At the start, we saw a lot of the district’s struggling students coming to our school looking for something different,” Kearney said. “Because of that, the community has often made the erroneous conclusion that New Heights is a school for troubled kids. It’s a tough image to shake.”

Kearney said that New Heights actual pre-dates the St. Croix Area Learning Center — ISD 834’s alternative learning center — and that Kearney shared expertise when the district started the program.

“What we hang our hat on is relationships,” Kearney said. “We do what the larger public school can’t do because they can not be small — and that is not a criticism. We didn’t set out to compete with Stillwater schools; we set out to do something different.”

As an example, Kearney said that the school’s secondary social studies teacher teaches every students and rotates through every class of students each day.

“Our teacher will see every student and will teach that student from 7th grade to graduation,” Kearney said. “When student’s come back to school after the summer, they are not starting a new relationship with a new teacher — they are resuming a relationship from last year and the year before and so on.”

New Heights also sets itself apart because of its student demographics. While the majority of students to New Heights come from ISD 834, there are about 30 percent students of color at the charter school compared to 16.5 percent students of color in the district. About 30 percent of students at New Heights received special education services, compared to 15 percent of students in the district. About 53 percent of New Heights students receive free or reduced lunch — an indicator of poverty — compared to 15.5 percent of students in the district.

“You will see that our test scores are lower than the district around use, and there is some correlation between those demographics and test scores,” Kearney said. “We are required to do the same state standard tests as other public schools.”

In response to its demographics, the program has adapted over the years to serve its students’ needs, Kearney said.

“We teach every kind of math from consumer math to calculus,” Kearney said. “The test scores don’t show the change in a student’s confidence in themselves or the progress they have made.”

Building purchase

Last year, the Stillwater Area School District and New Heights School decided to end its 24 year relationship of leasing the school’s building, choosing instead to sell the building to New Heights. The transaction has given Kearney some peace of mind.

“We were able to purchase the building by partnering with a non-profit that will issue a loan on our behalf,” Kearney said.

While the district has been a good partner, Kearney said that having the security of the building is helpful for their future planning.

“Our lease from the district has always been two or three years at a time, and we didn’t know if the district would want to use the building for its own purposes in the future,” Kearney said. “We are able to put some investments into the building and know that it will stay with the school.”

School choice

Last week, New Heights and other charter schools celebrated school choice week and the ability for families to choose which educational opportunity is best for their students.

“It’s wonderful that the St. Croix Valley has three charter schools, parochial schools and open enrollment,” Kearney said. “Families are able to shop around for the best choice.”

Kearney said that he has seen how needs have changed for families that attend New Heights.

“Needs may change. I have seen some families start at New Heights and then transition to secondary school at Stillwater Area High School,” Kearney said. “I have seen students that struggle at another school and come finish their education at New Heights.”

To learn more about New Heights School and enrollment information, visit newheightsschool.com or call 651-439-1962

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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