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Public school in rural Idaho touts patriotic focus

At North Valley Academy in the heart of Idaho's dairy country, a typical school day might seem like an over-the-top Fourth of July celebration elsewhere.

The public charter school in Gooding touts itself as a "patriotic" choice for parents, with a focus on individual freedoms and free market capitalism. "We teach something about patriotism every single day," said principal Cheri Vitek. "Every day in their classroom (students are) singing 'proud to be an American' and if they're not singing 'proud to be an American,' they're singing another song about America."

True enough. On this day, neat rows of students wearing their red, white and blue uniforms belted out "God bless the USA" in the school cafeteria.

North Valley Academy's patriotism emphasis is a first for Idaho, but a number of charter schools nationally focus on similar concepts, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based school choice advocate. The schools may not all present or teach in the same way, Allen said, but many "believe traditional schools have neglected teaching the importance of our nation's history, its free-market system."

North Valley Academy includes K-12th grades and was approved by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in 2008. It opened amid some outcry from Gooding's traditional public school system, but not because of the new school's curriculum.

The local district lost roughly 10 percent of its total enrollment to the new charter school that first year — along with the funding that went with it — and the town of about 3,500 suddenly had two groups of students: Those who wear uniforms and those who don't.

Far from being deterred by any sense of divide, school founder Deby Infanger is planning a second patriotic-themed charter school in Idaho Falls, which has support from Mormon businessman Frank VanderSloot, a national campaign finance co-chair for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. VanderSloot has offered to donate use of a property and refurbish a building to house the new school, Infanger said.

While the focus of the schools may mesh with conservative ideals, Infanger, who is also Mormon, said her aim is not political.

"I think there's been so much focus on this push back against capitalism, against Americanism, that people start thinking that everybody feels that way but they don't. That has not been our experience at all," Infanger said. "I have to reject the whole idea that being American is somehow controversial."

Even so, charter schools invite scrutiny when they focus on concepts that may be viewed as political, said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, which hasn't heard or voiced any concerns about North Valley Academy.

"But the public charter school commission has reason to be more proactive about investigating charter schools that go beyond ordinary public education," she said.

Hopkins cited Nampa Academy Classical, a former charter school in southwestern Idaho that tangled with state officials over use of the Bible and other religious texts in the classroom. Idaho's charter school commission closed the academy in 2010, citing troubled finances.

Infanger said she's not trying to advance a religious or a political ideology.

"We do a great job of not being political in the school," she said.

North Valley Academy's 250 students learn in classrooms named after the Founding Fathers and can recite all four stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner. They take a citizenship test in the eighth grade. Their school nickname: The Patriots. A few weeks ago the school held a "We Love America" open house.

The school's academics are based on the Core Knowledge program, a grade-by-grade curriculum outlined by conservative education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.

After the weekly assembly and singing, first graders returned to their classroom and recited for a visitor the school motto in perfect unison from the first line, "We are patriots, patriots, patriots," to the last, "We are proud of the red, white and blue."

Charter schools were authorized in Idaho with the idea that they could share new ideas with their traditional counterparts. But the focus on patriotism, freedom, and capitalism probably wouldn't transfer to a conventional classroom setting, Vitek said.

"I don't think that could take place in a traditional school, I just don't think that people would accept it," she said. "... I think it's because it's too political."

North Valley Academy's approach has been embraced by educators like Mike Savage, who left his job in a traditional classroom three years ago to work at the charter school as a math teacher and technology director.

"The only thing that was weird to me about it was that we could actually do it," Savage said.

Savage said he grew up with similar values. "We called it manners and respect and the right thing to do."

The school's small size resonated with Crystal Thatcher, 17, who previously attended a regular school. Now, in her patriotic-themed uniform, she relies more on personality to make friends, not on who's wearing the coolest clothes, she said.

"Since we are smaller, we're more of a community and we focus more on helping each other out," Thatcher said.

North Valley Academy was presented to the state as a charter school focused on patriotism and American history, not any particular political philosophy, said Tamara Baysinger, the director of Idaho's Public Charter School Commission.

Charter school commissioners may want to take a closer look at the school's focus on free-market capitalism and individual freedoms, she said.

"There's not necessarily anything wrong with it, but it may be something that the commissioners want to know more about."

Idaho charter schools are funded with state money based on average daily student attendance just like traditional public schools, but are given more freedom in how they operate. Charter school missions in Idaho range from an online school aimed at minority students to programs grounded in music, art, dance and drama.

Infanger is now looking to take the model to southeast Idaho, with the proposed American Heritage Charter School in Idaho Falls. She had hoped to win approval through the local school district, but the board declined, voting instead to refer the proposal to the state's charter school commission.

"I didn't find them to be hostile at all," Infanger said of the local board. "They were very cordial."

Infanger expects to bring plans for the American Heritage school to the state's charter commission in July.

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Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at www.twitter.com/jessiebonner

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