Written by Paul Krafel, co-founder and administrator
Part One – The Beginning
When my wife, Alysia, and I were the education team for Carter House Natural Science Museum (one of the predecessors of Turtle Bay Exploration Park), we did lots of natural science outreach to teachers. This work convinced us that (a) time out in nature is vital in a child’s development and that (b) lots of good teachers worked in the schools but (c) too much of their creativity was suppressed by regulations, procedures and hierarchies imposed from outside the classroom. A vision grew of a nature school that emphasized hands-on understanding and that gave teachers the autonomy to shape both their classroom and their school so that they could creatively interact with their students.
During this time, our oldest daughter, Zephyr, started 3rd grade. She was in a class of 31. There were several students, including Zephyr, who were gifted readers and writers. Zephyr started coming home from school sad and scared. Sad, because many of her classmates were not excited about school; scared, because she was being picked on and bullied. Concerned about these conditions, Alysia began talking to the school, trying to find a solution. The school refused. Unwilling to accept this, we pulled Zephyr out of school halfway through her 3rd grade year and began homeschooling her.
Shortly after this, when California passed a charter school law, we began work on a museum-based charter school. The specifics of our charter were strongly influenced by the book, Complexity, by Michael Waldrop. Several quotations from the book were included in our charter. Two of the most important are "…complex adaptive systems are constantly revising and rearranging their building blocks as they gain experience” and "Use local control instead of global control. Let the behavior emerge from the bottom up, instead of being specified from the top down. And while you're at it, focus on ongoing behavior instead of the final result…. living systems never really settle down." We wrote a charter that gave the teachers maximum freedom to revise and change their school’s structure. That was a good thing because we had no idea of how much change was going to come our way.
A charter school has to be sponsored, usually by a school district. We were unable to secure sponsorship for several reasons. Charter schools were so undefined at the beginning that districts were leery to get involved in something that might create a whole bunch of headaches. Also, many of the traditional “players” in the public school system wanted to prevent a new “player” from being able to play (and access some of “their” public funding). A year passed without success. Alysia and I had to decide whether to give up on the dream or spend another year pounding our heads against a possibly unbreakable wall. We decided to do neither (there’s an important lesson there). We decided to just start the school. It wasn’t a chartered public school; it was a museum-based, math and science enrichment program for homeschoolers. Alysia volunteered to teach classes two days a week. By the end of the first semester, the program had grown to ten students and TV news had reported on our program.
We began working with Steve Essig, director of Science In Rural California (and former principal of Mistletoe School and a great science teacher). Thanks to his administrative experience and political connections with Enterprise School District as well as the press coverage of our growing program, we were able to gain sponsorship from Enterprise Elementary School District. Because our only facility was a single modular classroom (the first museum building on the Turtle Bay campus) and we had two teachers, we proposed an independent study charter school of 30-40 students, first through eighth grade. With this expansion into first grade, our younger daughter, Dawn, could attend as well. The younger students would meet with Steve two days a week. The older students would meet with Alysia two other days a week. Fridays would be an optional Out in the World. We would provide hands-on math and science classes and the parents were responsible for the rest. Steve became the school’s first administrator. In August of 1996, Chrysalis opened as the first and only charter school in Shasta County.
Part Two – We Open
Our charter gave each of our two teachers maximum freedom to organize and teach their class almost anyway they wanted with a certain faith that interesting things would emerge. And they did start emerging.
Beginning as an independent study school had an enormous impact on Chrysalis because it created a culture of cooperation between teachers and parents that we hope continues to this day. Parents taught half the week. Teachers taught the other half. An understanding and respect and welcoming developed as we explored all the ways we could help one another.
One example of this to emerge was that many of our first families to enroll had no interest in nature study – our founding motivation. We had just assumed all our students would be lovers of nature. Nope. Many families came because we were a small school and they wanted to move their children out of what they saw as a morally corrosive playground environment at their current school. Parents helped expand the teachers’ understanding of what’s important.
On the other hand, we also had during that first year an “influential” parent who wanted Chrysalis to be a school in which her child only had to do whatever the child wanted to do that particular day and it was the teacher’s job to respond to that. That parent left the school frustrated – because we are founded on academic freedom for our teachers. It’s the teachers who create the program, not some other group ordering the teachers. That freedom creates a special spark within the teachers that radiates throughout the school. Over the years, parents and teachers have almost always been able to find ways to work together to create a better school.
One student to enroll that first year was Michael Siemens. He had a mother named Virginia. Chrysalis has never been the same since.
Part Three – The First Five Years
Because Chrysalis began as an independent study program a culture of parental involvement was created. It also generated something else within our school. Charter school law was wide open in the first years and independent study charter schools across the country started to attract many seamy “promoters” who saw the lack of regulation as an opportunity to make money. I remember one man whose moral aura reminded me of a pile of rancid bacon grease. He was running a charter school that enrolled students in private schools so the students were double-enrolled. He would then use some of state funds to buy the textbooks that the private schools wanted. He would then give some of the money back to the school district that sponsored him so that they got many thousands of “free” dollars they could use to educate the kids who were actually enrolled in the district’s school. Then he did hardly anything else – because the students were enrolled full-time at private schools – and pocketed thousands of dollars per student. As a result of people like this, the legislature started passing restriction after restriction on independent study charter schools. Independent study charter schools must now do this… and now do that… and fill out this paperwork… and have a program that complies with this…. We felt like a ship under bombardment with shells exploding to either side – shoving us off-course one way or another.
This experience had an important effect on Chrysalis. Hundreds of hours of our life energy were diverted into compliance issues and changing programs and forms because of the unscrupulous actions of others. It taught us deeply how important it is to act ethically. Our actions have the potential to touch the entire world and we should act with the fullest mindfulness we are capable of.
Our school began with two teachers sharing one classroom on different days. Not until we moved to Palo Cedro did we ever have all the students and teachers on one site at the same time. For twelve years we functioned in dissected facilities. In our second year, we rented the Teen Center in Caldwell Park and added a middle school teacher who taught out of her old modular classroom behind Mistletoe School. In our third year, we decided to expand. We leased a 2000 sq. ft. commercial space on Commerce Street and added a Kindergarten program. In our fifth year, the school split in half. Steve preferred a more top-down school hierarchy; we preferred one where leadership was shared among the staff. So Steve and about half the school left and created Monarch Learning Center. We continued at the museum classroom and the Commerce Street site. Sara became our kindergarten teacher. Dave Klasson became Chrysalis’s second administrator. At the end of our first five years, Enterprise Elementary School District renewed our charter for a second five years.
Chrysalis had to twist and turn and transform to make it through our first five years. These experiences deepened our appreciation of the wisdom residing in the quotations from Complexity written into our original charter.
“[C]omplex adaptive systems are constantly revising and rearranging their building blocks as they gain experience. Succeeding generations of organisms will modify and rearrange their tissues through the process of evolution. The brain will continually strengthen or weaken myriad connections between its neurons as an individual learns from his or her encounters with the world. A firm will promote individuals who do well and (more rarely) will reshuffle its organizational chart for greater efficiency. Countries will make new trading agreements or realign themselves into whole new alliances. At some deep, fundamental level, all these processes of learning, evolution, and adaptation are the same. And one of the fundamental mechanisms of adaptation in any given system is this revision and recombination of the building blocks."
Part Four– Our Second Five Years
The Chrysalis most of you know emerged from several fundamental changes that happened during our second five years. During our ninth year, the state passed a new set of regulations that required the supervising independent study teachers to do so much paperwork documentation that they would lack the time to do the kinds of hands-on learning we created Chrysalis for. So we decided to abandon the independent study model and become a full-time classroom school. We grandfathered in the dedicated home-schoolers until they graduated. Teachers became responsible for teaching all subjects, not just math and science. This created opportunities to do more cross-subject integration. Teachers now worked five days a week but all the work was focused on the kids, not on documents for the state auditors. And the “market” for Chrysalis changed. We became a possibility for all the families for whom homeschooling was not an option. Laura came on board as an assistant teacher for the growing middle school and would become a full-time teacher a year later.
We organized as a nonprofit educational organization. Also in our ninth year we had an amazing eighth grade class that stretched the upper limits of what students could do. They inspired the thinking that led to our mission statement of “encouraging the light within each student to shine brighter.”
Also in our ninth year, we were told that at the end of our tenth year, we would no longer be able to lease classroom space at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. This initiated a time of deep change and stress. During this period, I became the third administrator in Chrysalis’s history. One stress we faced was that the state laws about charter school facilities made it nearly impossible for us to be able to find a new location within a county with 25 school districts. The only way we could it was to switch sponsorship from Enterprise to the Shasta County Board of Education. This happened in 2006, our tenth year. We will always be grateful to Enterprise for sponsoring us in our first ten years and we are grateful to the Shasta County Board of Education for sponsoring us when we could have easily been killed by legal restrictions on locations.
Switching sponsors created the opportunity to re-vision our charter. In creating the charter for our third five-year period, we made one of the most important changes in our history. For the first ten years, each teacher had operated with individual autonomy. This worked remarkably well but it did not support collaboration within the school. Each teacher tended to teach their own class with styles that sometimes clashed with others. The new charter created a teachers’ co-op governance. Teachers no longer had the power to individually do whatever they wanted to do but they had the freedom to work together to create whatever the group could imagine. The psychological change this has made within the staff and the increased degree of collaboration has been tremendous.
So our first ten years ended with a school poised to be stronger than ever: stronger governance, nonprofit status, sponsorship as a county-wide charter school, a very strong sense of mission. The only thing lacking was a facility. We had no place to go and that would almost kill us.
The Next Ten Years
The 05-06 school year was a memorable time at Chrysalis. We were starting as a new school chartered by the Shasta County Board of Education. We were operating out of two inadequate facilities about two miles apart. The upper grades operated out of a 2000 square foot storefront in the commercial/industrial area near Cypress and Hilltop. Its lease was renewed each April. The lower grades operated out of a warren of modulars at Turtle Bay Exploration Park; we knew we would lose that facility at the end of the school year.
There was a church for sale in South Redding that contained enough space and a couple of acres of playground space. We arranged a bank loan for $700,000 and submitted our offer in January. In February, we heard that a small church had also submitted a bid. The selling church preferred that the church remained a church; however the bidding church could not arrange the financing and was asking for more time. So we had to wait until March to see if our offer would be accepted. March came and the church asked for more time. We went to the bidding church to offer what we thought could be a win/win deal: let us buy the church and we could rent them the facilities and office space at a modest cost. They nicely explained that their bylaws prohibited that. It was frustrating but cordial with both groups operating from their highest center. Sometime in April, the church finally obtained financing and they bought the church. Now we were desperate.
Wanting to further improve our school, we began contemplating hiring two new teachers to strengthen our language arts programs. But how do you hire new staff when you are not even sure of your next year’s location? Two wonderful teachers, Emily and Karen, believed in our program enough that they were willing to come on-board even though their job was not guaranteed. Keeping faith that our facilities troubles would work out, we hired them.
We found a commercial/industrial space that had been converted into a daycare facility that was up for lease. The main line of the railroad was on the other side of the road. The playground would be the parking lot in the back of the facility. It was limited but it was all we could find. To save our limited reserves for renovating this new facility, we did not renew our storefront lease. A small, beginning church promptly leased it and now we were completely committed to moving to the daycare site. We tore out the pond, garden, ceramics studio that we had built and paved over the play area. We pushed city permits as fast as we could. Part of the permitting process included giving people who lived within a certain distance the opportunity to comment on the proposed new use. In early June, a nearby swimming pool chemical company pointed out that if there ever was a fire, their chemicals would produce toxic fumes and that children really shouldn’t be near. The city people felt awful that somehow they had permitted the daycare center and not been aware of that hazard. We could proceed with the lease as long as we acknowledged the potential danger. That was a time of maximum ethical stress. What do we do? If we put the kid’s safety uppermost, it would be two months before school without any facility and the school would probably die. If we overlooked the chance of a fire, we could move in. But we had to do the right thing. We gave up on the daycare site and we now had no place to go. During this time, we had packed up everything. Chrysalis now existed in a vast pile of boxes.
In late June, SCOE offered three of their modulars that were at a school for an after-school program. That got our hopes up but within a few days, the school let us know in no uncertain terms that there was no way they were going to allow a competing charter school onto their campus.
Now it was July. The small church that had leased “our” storefront fell through and we renewed that lease. Instead of the gardens and ponds, our students now only had a blacktop yard to play on. We went to the church that had bought the church we had bid on and asked if we could lease their space on the weekdays for a school. Again, on a cordial, win/win basis, they agreed. The city helped us take care of possibly lengthy permits and by early August, we had two spaces. Parents and teachers worked late into the night painting our new classrooms and unpacking boxes. School opened on time though with many unpacked boxes piled in corners.
Thus began what I think of as our 40 years in the wilderness. Parents with children at both sites had to deal with a 20 minute drive between the two sites every day. Alysia’s class was in the social hall. Her classroom had to be completely packed up and moved out of the way for church each Wednesday and Friday afternoon and then be moved back in each Monday and Thursday morning. The primary class was housed in a Sunday school classroom 10 feet wide. Why would any family enroll their children in such inadequate facilities? The only reason was because something special and unique was happening there.
Those two years “in the wilderness” made us strong. Everything took so much energy that we had to do triage and be reminded daily of what is essential and fundamental to Chrysalis. A focus developed. Parents stepped in to help carry the load. The New Day Foursquare Church people were wonderful and we shall be ever grateful for their help. The teachers’ co-op began growing in its creative, harmonizing power. In the summer of 2007, we hired Cheri. Her son, Elijah, was a Chrysalis student and she had been volunteering at the school for several years.
In 2008, the opportunity came to lease our current facilities here in Palo Cedro. On a memorable day in June, three moving vans and 14 movers worked and worked, setting up the entire school in one long day. In August of 2008, for the first time in thirteen years, Chrysalis began the school year with everyone on one site. For the first time in thirteen years, teachers had classrooms that were truly theirs. For the first time in thirteen years, we had security and a place to call our own, a place where we could develop into the school that we always wanted to be.
This beautiful site gave us the space to grow and to become an even stronger community. With the stress and worry over facilities behind us, we have been able to devote all of our time to making improvements to the school. In the past seven years at the new site, we have grown significantly, expanded our office facilities, built the playground, added several new teachers, grown the role of the Parent Booster Club, installed solar panels on our rooftop, and, in 2014, hired Irene Salter as the new Administrator.