Skiing, Skating and 'Studio'
What's happening at Copper Island Academy?
On March 1, students at the Copper Island Academy spent the day outdoors celebrating Laskiainen, a sliding festival with Finnish origins. Principal Steve Aho said the students arranged the events of the day, which included sledding, skiing a snow sculpture contest, a 3v3 hockey tournament, and more.
While reporting on the celebration, I had the opportunity to sit down with Director Nora Laho and Principal Steve Aho to talk about the foundation of their new K-8 charter school.
The school currently has just over 300 students enrolled and sits on a 24-acre property off Airpark Boulevard.
The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Responses have been fact-checked against the Charter School FAQ Document from the Michigan Department of Education.
J. Vissers: How is Copper Island Academy funded, and how is that different from a public school?
Steve Aho: It's not different. It is a public school. I mean — So the wording we often use is it's not a traditional public school. So it's a charter school. But our funding comes from the same per-pupil funding that every other public school in the area utilizes.
We actually have, maybe you could say some more challenges with them. Because, unlike the standard community schools, we can't vote for a referendum to support our facilities.
J. Vissers: So no millage?
Steve Aho: Correct. So we have to take into account all of that, from that per-pupil funding base, which — especially in the initial phases — for us has been much more of a challenge. There's no doubt that makes it hard. So we do rely on a lot of grant opportunities. I mean, that's one of the things that Nora really enjoys doing is looking for… and chasing down money. And that's something that we'll have to continue to rely on. But yeah, we operate on the same money that every other public school does.
J. Vissers: Tuition?
Steve Aho: Nope, tuition-free.
Nora Laho: We cannot charge tuition.
Steve Aho: As a charter school we can’t. And that's kind of some of those misconceptions that are out there. In our open enrollment, as long as we have the availability — the capacity if you want to call it that — the room, in a classroom and our buildings, to take kids in during enrollment periods anybody is eligible to enroll. … It's a public school where anybody could choose to attend, should they think it's the right fit for them.
J. Vissers: Can you fundraise?
Steve Aho: Absolutely. We have kind of that initial phase for us getting going because we're still brand new, right? And we have a foundation already set up and very solid; a large group of people who were very instrumental in that initial phase of getting everything up and going and then hiring on Nora and myself when we were trying to put everything together and develop it and become authorized to actually have a school... So they were involved at that point. And they have now transitioned into that foundation that will work to support the school. And they're looking at doing their own level of fundraising.
They continually help support us, even on a daily basis right now. You know, transportation has been huge. That's a budgetary component, that — it's very difficult. And for us, we have students from, you know, north of Mohawk to Baraga to Chassell, to out in Stanton Township, and we can't possibly run buses… So our foundation has helped support some level of busing for us even, just to do main trunk line pickups.
J. Vissers: This is your first school year, how have things been going so far?
Steve Aho: Nora and I keep saying that, hopefully, we kind of see it level off … everything is new. Every day is an adventure. Every day, new procedures, new expectations, everything is new, right? The entire year. So we have all of that. With that being said… So there have been some hurdles and you know, whether it's financial or staffing — everybody in education is struggling with staffing right now —where we've been very blessed to have numerous people interested in jobs but to put everything together was a challenge.
But we have kids and families who have been very, very happy. I think for us the telltale sign — We just went through what we call the re-enrollment period. We had a two-week window to re-enroll; ‘Are you planning to come back next year?’ 98.7[%], I think was the number, re-enrolled. The number one, and almost the sole cause of somebody saying they didn't want to re-enroll was transportation.
So, when you ask how has it been going? Like we would, we'd love to say, yeah, it's been going well, we have a lot of joy, a lot of really good things going on, you know, and we could talk at length about just the model and what's different. But the re-enrollment, I think speaks volumes to that. You know, and we're in an open enrollment period now where anybody else who was not enrolled currently can sign up and we have a healthy number of kindergarten, and other grades starting to fill up of people saying, ‘Yeah, we're interested, we would love to enroll next year’.
[Open enrollment has ended since this interview was recorded]
Nora Laho: And as long as there’s still capacity, anyone can enroll after the open enrollment window. At that point, it becomes first come first serve. So otherwise, during that open enrollment period, if it exceeds capacity, all of those names go into a random selection drawing, essentially. So we can't pick and choose who comes in.
J. Vissers: What is your experience running schools, and how did you come into these positions?
Steve Aho (with a chuckle): Were newbies.
Nora Laho, to Steve: You've had quite a bit of experience.
Steve Aho: I've had experience in schools. I've been a teacher for 20-plus years in special education and elementary education, primarily. I was an athletic director in Hancock schools for a few years. I was then — two years prior to coming here I was the Hancock middle school principal. I did not go to school to be a school administrator, but I took my certification classes on the job. While I was at Hancock I was working on it and right when I got hired here, I finished that up. So very new to the realm.
One of the big reasons I was hired was because of my interest in… the Finnish education model. I've done some study with that. I worked at South Range Elementary school, we created a program called ‘Hey, Suomi’, where we had two students from the University of Lapland, staying at Finlandia University in the dorms, but then teaching for an hour and a half a day in my third-grade classroom at South Range Elementary and tying it into local history and the mines and the immigrants from Finland coming to the area, and just learning Finnish language culture and everything about why we see some of the things we see in the area today. And it was their — those students from Finland — it was their teacher training. So I was their cooperating teacher as they went through their [training] to become teachers. So that was one of the things. I'm also involved with the Finnish Council of North America through Finlandia University… So that was kind of my background to this group saying, ‘Hey, would you be interested in helping support what we're doing here?’ … Nora can talk about her experience.
Nora Laho: I started out teaching out west, we taught out west for about eight years, and I did some instructional coaching…
J. Vissers: I’m going to need you to be more specific than ‘out west’.
Nora Laho: Wyoming, southwest corner of Wyoming in a town called Mountain View. After coming back here, I taught and did some technology coaching and then was most recently technology coordinator at CLK and I kind of fell into this job through being involved in the very early stages with helping shape the model that came from the needs assessment and the community input into driving what the school became.
J. Vissers: Can you tell me a little bit more about that needs assessment?
Nora Laho: Sure. We, starting in about August of 2020… there were a lot of community meetings. And in those meetings, the biggest questions were what are your unmet needs? What are the local schools, maybe not doing that you would like to see in an education model for your kids? And so we had hundreds of parents, community members, business owners, business leaders in the area, kind of providing input into that process. And then we took that information and started digging into models. There are a lot of different charter school models, education models out there. And so we explored a bunch of them and what we found to be the best fit, and also aligned with our community was the Finnish model of education. So we didn't just randomly select it, it actually came from a pretty in-depth process.
J. Vissers: Who leads the school?
Nora Laho: There’s a lot of oversight.
Steve Aho: A lot of people don't realize that we actually have additional oversight on top of what every other school around here, experiences. You know, so for us to become an entity, we had to become authorized as a charter school. So Central Michigan University took on that role. There was a daunting application process. To prove that; here's who we are, here's what we're going to do, here's how we're going to assess, here's how we're going to show that we're capable — everything from facilities to students to staffing to curriculum, everything. So they have that direct oversight of that link to the Michigan Department of Ed. We also have a management company that we are working with, and they run essentially our back-office; human resources, payroll, budgeting. They support our administration. So with learning and administrative support, so they're in all of those
J. Vissers: Mind if I ask who that is?
Steve Aho: Yeah, CS Partners. CS Partners out of Brighton, Michigan.
Nora Laho: So we have many layers of oversight. MDE, CMU, and then more closely, CS Partners.
Steve Aho: And then even our local ISD is involved with us as they are every other school around here…
J. Vissers: And then you have a local board too, a school board?
Steve Aho: Correct. And so one difference in the board is they're appointed versus elected. They go through an interview process through Central Michigan University. So CMU does a vetting process on potential board members. And they have a term limit.
J. Vissers: Word is you’re considering the addition of a high school already?
Steve Aho: Not now. We need to get established.
So it depends who you talk to. If you're asking us, are those thoughts there? Yeah, they are. Are we planning a high school right now? No, in the sense that we can't feasibly do it. That and I've said many times, that'll be community-driven. Like our families, etc. — If they want it to happen, and the support is there for it, whether it's financially, the students, et cetera, then down the road that feasibly could — I mean, we've started thinking that long-range three to five-year plan for us as an entity, and are those thoughts there? And yeah, they are, but we do not have the plans to put up another building and it's been just a whirlwind process already.
J. Vissers: You’d need another building, this one looks full.
Steve Aho: It doesn’t look, it is full. We are busting at the gills. It’s very full.
J. Vissers: What’s your student-to-teacher ratio?
Nora Laho: Our goal is to keep it to 20 students in a classroom or less with one teacher. So right now we are doing that K through 6. Seventh and eighth grade, we did set our capacity a little bit higher knowing we were only going to do one section of seventh and one section of eighth this year. So we have 25 and 27.
J. Vissers: About your curriculum. How is it different? How do you choose it?
Nora Laho: In terms of the curriculum and the material resources we're using, we're using all resources that are from the US just because of, you know, translation issues and things like that. State standards — we do have to align with state standards. So we went through a process with parents, local teachers, and we kind of vetted different curricula that kind of met some of the key pieces of our model. So we really focus on experiential learning hands-on learning, getting kids outside, collaboration, cooperation. What else?
Steve Aho: The ability to differentiate and meet individual needs.
Nora Laho: Rich literature was a key part of what parents were seeking and making sure the kids are immersed in good books throughout the subjects.
Steve Aho: There's kind of two sides to this. The actual curriculum that we're using, we went through this process. And there are certain things we have to abide by, we tried to find the best fits for us. But where I see the differences is in the delivery of that model, and how are we servicing the kids and utilizing that curriculum that we chose to teach? So in conjunction with that Finnish model, a couple of the key things that we're doing, we're really focusing on those hands-on activities and the outdoor education. We're also focusing on allowing kids to have that time to have an unstructured play and creative play.
So one of the big things we do is 45 minutes of class 15 minutes of “brain break” outside recess time, all day long. And so kids are getting outside every hour of the day. And we really focused on those transition times to minimize, you know, wasted time. Just expectations of ‘boom, get ready, get out’. And as soon as that time is done, get back in, you know, and there are numerous studies have just shown that students are more on task, they have less behavior problems, they're able to gain and retain information better when they have that ability to play and get outside. And that's something that Finns do really well.
So some of those things, you know, what we call our studio component is really that hands-on, kind of focusing on three main areas. One is woodworking, another is textile and then another is culinary and gardening. So we actually have a teacher that is working with kids in each of those areas. And they're going through and experiencing things that they may not be getting at young ages in other schools. You know, it's becoming more of a focus on the career tech, but it's often not until the older ages, upper high school at best. And we're really trying to start at kindergarten. Kids need to be doing some of these things and experiencing them and learning. And those are the things that some of these business leaders that we talked about before and community members have said we're missing, that's not out there. So we're focusing on that.
Nora Laho: And a lot of our decision making is — we prioritize student independence and student problem solving and really making them think for themselves. And in Studio, I think that's really, really evident. In her teaching style, the projects are doing things like that. But even in day-to-day classroom activities, teachers have that as kind of their mind that that's something we're always pushing for.
J. Vissers: How frequently do these Studio classes happen?
Nora Laho: Not enough right now, because of how many kids we have and how we only have the one teacher, one space right now. So once a week, sometimes twice a week, depending. And then yeah, so the goal would be to be at least two times per week. In Finland, they call it craft education, which we didn't feel was necessarily — that sounds ‘arts and crafts’ kind of and it’s not what it is.
J. Vissers: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your school? Do you think it brought support or held you back? How have you navigated it during your first school year?
Steve Aho: Both ways. I mean, obviously, there's extreme challenges all over with it. So one of the things that that we've really tried to do is allow people to make personal decisions. We've had people get sick, etc. But we've tried to operate — one of the frustrations parents had was the in school, out of school, in school out of school, you know, whether it was school shutting down, or quarantines or whatever, and just that whole realm of not knowing what's coming, and all of that. Okay, so those were pieces, like — it's hard on kids. So we've tried to focus on the kids and retain everything as close to normal as we possibly can, within the realm of what's going on.
So we've done the cleaning, we've done, you know, had extra hand sanitizers and all those things available. But we've really tried to, and for the most part have been able to, operate somewhat normally.
So for us, it's only been since September. So we weren't in operation last year right when there was much more going on, from a school standpoint. So I don't know how it would have been, then. And really, it's gone, I would say, remarkably well. You know, we've had some kids sick, but we don't always know what they're sick with.
J. Vissers: So have you had any masking policies?
Steve Aho: No mandatory. We've had a few people in here wearing masks. We've had no mandatory policy from us that you need to do it. We've left that to personal choice.
While walking the school grounds, I stopped and met Joel Keranen, the vice president of Copper Island Academy’s board. He said it was amazing how motivated his kids are to go to school since joining Copper Island Academy.
“They don’t want to stay home from school [when sick]”, Keranen said.
He said he’d happily compare their school’s standardized test scores against any of the local traditional public schools. He joined the school’s leadership out of a desire to do something different than the other local schools.
Keranen said there were 15-20 families that came together to “put their money where their mouth is” and try a new method of education. He said he thinks their efforts will help drive change in local public schools, too.
Kayla Seppala is the mother of four boys attending Copper Island Academy. After homeschooling during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she liked the alternative style of the school and more outdoor time for her boys. She said the frequent “brain breaks” let them use their abundant energy.
Living in Oskar, she said transportation to and from the school is hard, so she’s very grateful for the morning bus that’s available thanks to the school foundation.
“I can handle the afternoon,” Seppala said.