Nature-based charter school to debut in Kalamazoo in 2016

Outdoor learning, integrated free play, project-based learning, an environmental science focus with on-site opportunities for outdoor labs: They are all part of what is planned for a new education opportunity for the area, Great Lakes Explorations Academy.
Michelle Timmerman-Davis' resume is thick. With bachelor's degrees in Geography: Environmental Analysis and Natural Resource Management and in Political Science, a post-college Americorps position with the Michigan Department of Agriculture,  experience organizing Earth Day events, environmental landscape workshops, harvest festivals, running a small CSA, plus gobs of volunteering (with the likes of Kalamazoo Nature Center, Girls on the Run, AYSO and 4H), it's no wonder that she was approached in 2014 about her interest in a seat on the newly forming board for a Nature-based Charter Academy.

"Starting an environmentally focused outdoor school has been one of my main goals for many years now," Timmerman-Davis says. She is now the forming charter's board president.

That charter is Great Lakes Explorations Academy (GLEA). It will be a nature-based public charter school that will eventually serve students in kindergarten through the 8th grade.The academy is slated to open in Oshtemo Township on 40-plus acres in the fall of 2016. The charter is managed by American Quality Schools Corporation (AQS), a non-profit charter management organization based in Chicago. Over the past 16 years, they have managed charter schools in Fort Wayne, and Gary, Ind.; East Chicago, and Chicago, Ill.; and St. Louis, Miss.

GLEA is modeled after an Indiana nature-based school that opened in 2010, Discovery Charter School. That charter is located by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and uses a standards-based, integrated, environmental curriculum. Discovery is among the highest-achieving elementary schools in Indiana.

It will be a public charter school, which means that it will be open to students residing anywhere in the state, tuition-free. Michael Bakalis, President and CEO of American Quality Schools Corporation  says, "The intent of charter schools was to allow for innovation with greater flexibility in school curriculum and freedom from many regulations applied to district public schools."

But that flexibility doesn't completely disentangle charters from all state standards. For instance, public charters are still held to state standards, like the Common Core. What makes GLEA unique is its emphasis on environmental and outdoor education. Bakalis says that "nature is the classroom and playground. GLEA will have an emphasis on environmental and outdoor education, place-based learning, project-based learning, and Socratic inquiry. Learning will occur outdoors to the extent possible. The school program will also include the fine arts, structured and unstructured play, a school garden, character education, and service learning."

Timmerman-Davis isn't just the board president, she's also a parent to two students who will attend the school when it opens in 2016. "When I had my first child, I decided I wanted to homeschool her in order to provide the kind of education and upbringing I thought she needed.  Due to family circumstance, she went to public school after a few years. She eventually skipped a grade and is at the top of her class in high school. I now also have two boys, soon to be 6 and 8 years old whom I homeschool. For about 14 years now, I have educated myself on teaching and learning and served as a homeschool teacher."

Kristi Kusek is another parent who has already enrolled her child for the 2016-2017 school year at GLEA. She and her husband have resided in West Michigan for the past 25 years. They have a 5-year-old son who will enter first grade when GLEA opens. "From the time our son was born, we knew we would not let ourselves be limited by whatever school was closest," Kusek says. "Our goal was to find a school environment that would best fit our individual child and our family's values." She says that they considered public schools in districts like Otsego, Plainwell, Kalamazoo, and Comstock, as well as several private schools before learning about GLEA.

Kusek describes her family as a "STEAM" family, which stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics." And because the Common Core doesn't address science standards, they were looking for a school that wasn't constrained by those standards and that would be able to place an emphasis on science. The things that made GLEA seem the perfect fit for their child were numerous: outdoor learning, integrated free play, project-based learning, environmental science focus with on-site opportunities for outdoor labs, learning that connects the classroom to the community (place-based learning), and a focus on feeding students whole, locally-sourced foods.

But it was more than just a learning style that positioned GLEA as the best option for the Kusek family. "We believe in supporting local business and local agriculture as much as we can. Investing in our communities helps individuals, families, and our cities thrive, economically and socially. Having our son learn about these connections as much at school as he does at home makes us feel like we are not only providing a place for him to learn but also connect -- and ultimately thrive."

GLEA's location at 6200 West KL Avenue in Oshtemo Township places it within the bounds of the Kalamazoo Public School district. Considering that Kalamazoo Public Schools is home to The Promise Scholarship, which offers full tuition scholarships to KPS high school graduates that have completed all 12 grades (and graduated scholarships for those who've been enrolled for fewer years), an alternative to the public school system in Kalamazoo is usually a seriously thought-out consideration.

Timmerman-Davis says, "The Promise Scholarship is a wonderful promise to Kalamazoo Public School district residents that offers opportunities for a college education that many of those residents may not receive elsewhere. The financial benefits of the Kalamazoo Promise can be significant and is a great choice for some. On the other hand, there are other scholarship programs available to help support upcoming college students, some of which offer opportunities not supported by the Kalamazoo Promise. In addition, many families are looking for opportunities not found at KPS or their local district."

Timmerman-Davis goes on to point out that GLEA will offer a different kind of promise. "GLEA's promise is to strive to offer an experience for children that supports the development of unique, healthy, happy, and competent youth that become community and environmental stewards." GLEA's mission states: The Great Lakes Explorations Academy develops healthy, global citizens who exhibit creativity, critical thinking, environmental stewardship and a commitment to community. We provide engaging learning experiences in natural and real-world surroundings.

The school will open with grades K-5, adding a grade each school year until it reaches its capacity at K-8th. Plans are underway for two classes per grade, with a maximum classroom capacity of 25 students. AQS had initially interviewed highly-qualified principal candidates in anticipation of a 2015 opening.

The decision to delay the 2015 opening of the school till 2016 came about due to last minute construction delays that arose when Oshtemo Township asked for site plan revisions before giving final approval. “This renegotiation process affected the budget and construction schedule to the point that a 2015 opening was not possible,” says Timmerman-Davis.

The search was narrowed to two finalists shortly before the opening was pushed back to fall of 2016. Both candidates expressed a willingness to stay in contact as finalists for the position. Once the principal is hired she or he will take a lead role in staff hiring, which, according to AQS Vice President Patricia Yadgir, will include two certified teachers in each grade, a team leader, a school naturalist, PE teacher/adventure coordinator, special education teacher, and an arts teacher. Individuals interested in these positions may submit their resume to

The academy needs to collect 150 signatures or applications from interested students in order to begin construction in the fall of 2015. Applications are available on the GLEA website. GLEA representatives also will be at Family Fit Fest, Mayor's Riverfront Park, Kalamazoo on June 25 and at the Kindleberger Summer Festival in Parchment on July 11.

Interested families can learn more about GLEA and the enrollment process by visiting their website or attending a future board meeting, which take place the third Tuesday of the month. Meeting times and locations are posted on the website.

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog,
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