Lorence doesn’t call the school custodian. The MITCH Charter School can’t afford a full-time janitor. She grabs a mop from a hall closet and sops up the spill herself.
It’s not the first time Lorence has pitched in for the school she named to honor her departed best friend.
“Last year, I was the janitor for part of the year – me and the kids. They wound up loving it,” said the founder of MITCH – the nickname of her friend, who died in 1998. It’s also an acronym that stands for Multi-sensory Instruction Teaching Children Hands-on.
It’s the kind of school both women dreamed of for their own kids, Lorence said. Since it opened in 2002 in the suburban Tigard-Tualatin School District south of Portland, MITCH has grown to include about 250 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
This year MITCH is paying a commercial cleaning service, relieving the principal of most custodial duties. But operating a charter school in Oregon is a constant budget battle, said Lorence, a former PE teacher and coach with a master’s degree in education administration.
Most Oregon charters get less state money per student than the school districts they contract with. And most pay for their own facilities.
MITCH spent eight years wandering from portable classrooms on school district property to various churches. Students used port-a-potties at one location.
Finally in 2010, the school moved into a converted warehouse in a Tualatin office park. Parents pitched in to paint and put the finishing touches on new classrooms in the energy-efficient building.
MITCH middle schoolers sit in rolling office-style chairs around conference tables. The used furniture was donated by local businesses.
Younger students occupy hand-me-down school desks, gleaned from school district surplus. “Every school district has a warehouse full of this stuff,” Lorence said.
But MITCH still has to pay the rent – about $22,000 a month – and other expenses, including salaries for teachers.
With a total budget of just over $1 million, Lorence estimates that fundraising brings in about $75,000 a year. This month, MITCH is bringing a Holocaust survivor to Tualatin High School for a public lecture. Donations from the audience will help raise money for MITCH eighth-graders, who are headed to Washington, D.C., where they plan to visit the Holocaust museum.
The latest test scores at MITCH are higher than its sponsoring school district, but about on par when compared with other Oregon schools with similar demographics, according to new score reports.
Dan Goldman, curriculum director for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, agrees that MITCH students do well.
“They deliver for their kids,” he said. “We have a really good relationship with them.”
It’s one reason the district has granted its only charter school a 10-year contract. But he said the charter isn’t the only school in the district that’s doing well. Six district schools joined MITCH in receiving an “outstanding” rating from the state this year.
MITCH’s demographics are less diverse than the district as a whole. About one-quarter of district students are Hispanic, for example, but only 5.6 percent at MITCH.
One of the charter school’s goals is to connect kids to both the natural and intellectual worlds. Students can get their hands dirty in raised-box gardens. There’s composting in the cafeteria.
Because the school is free to choose its own schedule, MITCH runs an extended school day Monday through Thursday; school hours are 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Teachers gather on some Fridays, while others are field trip days for students. One Friday a month is a day off for everyone.
As a charter, MITCH chooses its curriculum, a combination of several nationally recognized models. On a fall day, sixth-graders are starting independent research projects on ancient Greece. Third-graders are learning to draw in the style of Canadian First Nation artist Norval Morrisseau. And fourth-graders are practicing penmanship.
MITCH’s approach is popular. The school has a student waiting list of about 600. Open slots are filled by lottery, with siblings and in-district kids getting first crack at open seats.
Shana Hildreth had to apply two years in a row for her oldest son to gain admission. Her two boys, third- and fifth-graders, are both at MITCH now.
“I want my children to be renaissance men,” she said. “I wanted a classical education for them, and I wanted the academics to be rigorous.”
Hildreth began as a parent volunteer, joined the school’s governing board and got hooked. She went back to school, earned a master’s degree in teaching and now works as a MITCH teacher.
“I love being in a creative environment, and I love hanging out with kids,” she said. “I believe in the school mission.”
Lorence, the principal, said she trusts her teachers and they trust her.
But in 2010, a former MITCH teacher sued the school in federal court, arguing she was unjustly fired because of a dispute with Lorence over her requested maternity leave. A federal judge ruled in favor of the teacher, and the school’s insurance company paid a settlement.
Starting pay for MITCH teachers, who do not belong to a union, is $32,000. That’s roughly $3,400 less than traditional schools in the district. Every new teacher starts at the bottom of the scale. Teachers with more than a decade’s experience might earn about $39,000 – over $10,000 less than district teachers at the same level.
But MITCH teacher Kwen Peterson said she sacrifices dollars for a more human-scale working environment: “I have a much louder voice. I don’t get lost in the shuffle.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com