CANNON BEACH — Nearly halfway through the first school year, the Cannon Beach Academy is still a mystery to many in the community.
“Half think we are an elite school where you pay tuition. The other half think we are only for Spanish-speaking students. Neither are true,” said Amy Moore, the bilingual charter school’s executive director. “We have people who still don’t know what grades we are.”
The academy, which serves kindergarten through second grade, is trying to overcome the sense of confusion and enroll more students for next school year. In order to keep a charter with Seaside School District, the academy has to eventually grow to serve up to fifth grade.
Four years after the closure of Cannon Beach Elementary School because of cost concerns and tsunami danger, the new school is battling an information gap and looking to evolve from community startup into a community staple.
“I think we were so focused on getting the doors open, we just assumed people knew who we were,” Moore said. “Now we want to push forward with the message we are tuition-free public school, that you don’t have to live in Cannon Beach to attend, and that we have small class sizes.”
Traditionally, charter schools offer a choice in curriculum or program focus that a school district isn’t already providing. Many have specialties, like the arts or sciences, or are driven by the desire to seek independence from a centrally-run school system.
But part of the confusion with Cannon Beach Academy is the fact it was not intended to be a charter school at the beginning, said board member Phil Simmons. The primary mission of the original task force was to keep a traditional public school in Cannon Beach.
“This started a year and a half before the school closed. Our focus at that point was to get a school district school in town. The only problem was that the school was in this bad location,” Simmons said. “We wanted to keep the school and just move it. People would propose a charter school to me as an alternative, and I can tell you personally had no idea what a charter school was. I just knew we had a good school in Cannon Beach and wanted to keep it.”
It was only after the final door was closed that Simmons started researching charter schools. His research dispelled his negative connotations when he realized charter schools are still tuition-free public schools, part of a school district.
“I can understand why there is some confusion, because I was similarly without knowledge,” he said.
Due to state requirements, the academy chose to offer a different curriculum and a bilingual element to differentiate from other schools in the school district. They chose Spanish as a way to build upon the number of native Spanish speakers who already live within the town, Simmons said.
Out of 22 students, seven come from Spanish-speaking families, according to Moore. Of those, six qualify for English language learner services, which is 27 percent of the student body. By comparison, 9 percent of students at Gearhart Elementary School and 22 percent at Seaside Heights Elementary School qualify for the help.
While parents have noted that the small class sizes and bilingual aspects add value, the common motivating factor for many is still proximity.
Alberto Rodriguez, a parent of a kindergartner, works at the Ocean Lodge and Wayfarer hotels in town and is from one of the seven Spanish-speaking families the school serves. While he appreciated Spanish being incorporated, being close to his daughter is what drove his decision.
“I like it because my job is here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s easier to be around and involved.”
For Colin Woody, a parent of a first-grader at the academy, having the school close to his work at the restaurant Castaways enables him to be more involved with his child’s education.
“I think this school has had to go through so many hoops that it hasn’t had a chance to define itself,” Woody said. “But I see it as a positive place. A community-supported place.”
Moore said the same reasons that make the charter school different from others are also crucial to success.
“Why we’re here is why we’re here. Choice is a part of our mission, but this school is here because we wanted to bring community back to Cannon Beach,” Moore said. “The essence of identity is tied to knowing our importance in the community while also providing choice to those who may not live in Cannon Beach.”
With the doors open, the academy now has access to grant money to help promote the school in a way that wasn’t possible before, Moore said. In the past three months, the academy has invested in a new website, marketing campaign and a billboard to get the word out.
Enrollment must increase to be more sustainable, and Moore would like to see 50 students by next school year, she said.
“Our biggest barrier for this year I think was people being nervous about whether or not we will open and stay open,” she said. “But we’re looking to fix that information gap, and I think between demonstrating our academics is sound and educating why we are here, we will grow.”