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John Muir school expands

Allison Wildman has a keen understanding of what it’s like to cross her fingers and wait for that special call from John Muir School because she and her two kids went through that for three years.

She also knows the joy felt recently by about 25 families because she eventually did receive the news that her kids would be able to attend the small magnet school. Now, thanks to John Muir’s recent expansion to five teachers and 125 students, Wildman’s kids will have a few more classmates to say "hi" to come September.

“I have a boy who is so at home in nature, so putting him in a regular elementary school was challenging for him — he needs to be outdoors more and learn from experience,” said Wildman, who is also the Parent-Teacher Collective co-president and a sustainability committee member. “That’s exactly how my son learns. I knew it was a perfect fit.”

John Muir Principal Deidre Pearson hopes that there will be more perfect fits after the school was given the go-ahead from Ashland Superintendent Jay Hummel in May to hire another full-time teacher, making it possible to allow 25 more students for the 2015-16 school year.

John Muir’s enrollment period closed on April 16, and as always, there was a waiting list for those whose number did not come up in the school’s lottery. That’s what happens when you have 125 applicants vying for 12 spots.

Pearson had hoped to convince Hummel and the rest of the Ashland School District leadership that it was time for John Muir to expand, but even with the high demand it wasn’t an easy sell.

“They were supportive and we were working together to find a solution,” Pearson said, “but obviously there are budget restrictions. And in the past we’ve faced declining enrollment in the district, so any time we expand then it could have a negative impact on the other schools. So it’s a fine balance.”

There’s also the class size issue, and contrary to popular belief, John Muir is not immune. With only four teachers, John Muir has the last few years divided its kindergarten through eighth grade school into four mixed classes. For the 2014-15 school year, the breakdown went like this: 23 students in a combination kindergarten and first grade class, 25 in a second and third grade combined, 25 in a fourth and fifth grade combined and 29 in a sixth, seventh and eighth grade combined.

In the end, the district decided that adding a teacher and increasing John Muir’s capacity would benefit both John Muir and the district as a whole.

“Well, it was very serendipitous,” Pearson said. “The stars aligned for us. We had a strong interest from the community and a waiting list at every grade level and a record number of applications, so we knew we could fill the classes. But the challenge was fitting it into the overall district makeup.”

What made the expansion fit the district’s long-range goals, Pearson said, was a bulge in enrollment at the fourth- and fifth-grade level, as well as Hummel’s willingness to work with the school.

“So taking some of those (fourth- and fifth-graders) actually provided some relief,” Pearson said. “Also, (Hummel) worked on the open enrollment process to allow additional students from outside Ashland that opportunity.”

Once Pearson and the rest of the John Muir staff received the good news that the school could hire a new teacher and accept more applicants, she was tasked with informing the parents of those children who could now attend the school. It was a job Pearson relished.

“Some of these families had already received communications that they were not able to attend and were on a waiting list, so it was exciting to be able to call,” Pearson said. “One woman that I called said that they had applied to John Muir every year since kindergarten and her child was a seventh-grader. Another said that she had wanted her daughter to attend since the womb. That was a first-grader.”

Others could be heard crying while receiving the news.

“That really made it all worth it,” Pearson said.

Established in 2006, John Muir touts in its handbook an “experienced-based education and intellectual concept construction.” Students participate in hiking activities — such as the “leave-no-trace” backpacking trip — designed to tie into the curriculum, and also have access to other outdoor programs, such as the Rogue River Keepers and the SOU Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program.

Will John Muir continue to look for opportunities to expand? Pearson says she can’t rule that out, but is pleased with the school’s current size.

“I think we’re going to see how it feels at 125,” she said. “One of the founding tenets of our school is that it’s a small community, and of course that’s something to keep in the forefront. I would never say never, but we’re really happy and content where we’re at right now. There’s lots of happiness and excitement around here.”

 Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

From left, John Muir School students Cole Daneman, Mardie Graham, Taryn Tinder, Macy Haim, Lilia Chapman, Fiona Johnson and Luna Wilhelm participate in Alecia Walker's African dance class. Mail Tribune file photo