When Cheryl Demers was looking for an elementary school for her son, she never imagined she would end up starting her own.
But after researching numerous local schools and spending a year at Corvian Community School – only to lose enrollment when Corvian was granted charter school status last year and switched to lottery-style admission – Demers decided starting a school was her best option.
“We had a great time at Corvian, and we thought our children really benefited,” Demers said. “What we believe is that each child should have this type of education.”
Pioneer Springs’s school philosophy is based on Ernest Boyer’s idea of “The Basic School,” a school environment with heightened focus on community, character building and family involvement. Two successful charter schools in the area, Corvian and The Community School of Davidson, also follow the Basic School philosophy.
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While Pioneer Springs Community School will open as a private school with tuition at $550 per month, Demers hopes the school eventually will receive charter status to help relieve the waiting lists at Corvian and Community School of Davidson.
Corvian’s website shows a waiting list of 441 students; CSD’s waiting list has more than 3,200, according to Pauline Carter of CSD’s student records office. For parents looking for an affordable alternative to public school like Demers is, getting admitted to one of those schools can feel as unlikely as actually winning the state lottery.
Abigail Jennings, another Pioneer Springs co-founder who is also serving as the school’s financial director, said she originally looked for an alternative program when she realized traditional elementary school just doesn’t work for every child.
Jennings, whose daughter attended a traditional public kindergarten last fall, worried that her daughter was losing her love of learning and that the demands of public school were “inappropriate” for a child her age.
“These kids are coming from preschool or no school to basically a full-time job and … an hour of homework every night,” Jennings said. “She (my daughter) was completely stressed out. … I was watching her begin to hate school, and she used to love school.”
Halfway through the year, Jennings switched her daughter to Corvian, where she felt much more at home.
“She just thrived and learned. … And wasn’t stressed out or burned out,” Jennings said. “(At Corvian) they used holistic learning. They used creativity to learn and let them grow as little individuals. But in the more traditional school, it was like you’ve got to fit in a mold. I wanted to be in a place where everybody feels like who they are is special.”
But like Demers, Jennings’s family lost admission when Corvian became a charter school and therefore had to admit students by lottery.
In February, after Jennings, Demers and their third founding member, Erin McDonald, all realized their children would not be readmitted to Corvian, they got together and brainstormed their options. Jennings lives in Cornelius; Demers and McDonald live in Huntersville.
“We sat down and talked about our possibilities, and we decided that this was our best option,” McDonald said. All three families were coming from The Children’s Schoolhouse in Huntersville, a co-op preschool that involves parents extensively, so they felt prepared to handle the administrative demands of another school.
“Because we come from a co-op, the decisions we make and the things we’ll do, we’ll do as a group. … You can get a lot further than if it’s just one parent making one decision,” said McDonald. “Everyone is being unbelievably supportive. … Our intention is that we would all stick together with this.”
In the months since its conception, Pioneer Springs already has seen overwhelming support from similar schools in the area, including Corvian and CSD.
Lisa Humphries, a kindergarten-first grade teacher at CSD, has spent the past few years consulting with Corvian to help it develop a school that follows the Basic School philosophy. When she heard about the founding of the new school, Humphries agreed to consult with Pioneer Springs as well.
“It’s a very difficult process, what they’re doing,” Humphries said. “But I told them, if I were in their shoes and I had a child and believed in the Basic School, I would do the same thing.
“I think this type of school … it’s joyful, it’s celebratory, it’s engaging and very rich. And even so, our kids still test well.”
Parents involved are excited to see what the new year may bring.
“There is a definite need for this style of school,” Demers said. “People are asking for this. We are only a very small school, but we’ll do our part.”