Teton Science Schools’ two independent schools will become one school across two campuses starting next year.
Journeys School in Jackson and Teton Valley Community School in Victor, Idaho will operate more in lockstep than before for the sake of efficiency and expanded opportunity. They’re now operating separately under the Teton Science Schools, or TSS, umbrella.
Nancy Lang, who’s been the head of Journeys School since 2015, will be replaced by Michelle Heaton, the head of school at Teton Valley Community School. Lang will become the head of school at the New School, in Arkansas.
“By functioning together as an integrated school, that enables the faculty and the students to take their teaching and learning to a whole new level,” Heaton said.
It’s full circle for Heaton, who was a student in the very first cohort of the Teton Science Schools graduate program 25 years ago. After an educational career on the East Coast, she came back to the Tetons last summer.
“It’s a really awesome coming-home story for me in terms of my own education,” Heaton said. “Being here for the grad program and teaching here was by far the most transformative experience in my own education, so I’m just excited to be able to offer that to others. It really is such a progressive model of education, and it feels really good to be offering something so special to our community.”
Teton Science Schools has been working for years to align all its various parts into a more cohesive structure. Executive Director Chris Agnew detailed a process that began in 2017 with the updating of the organization’s mission and “planting our flag in place-based education.”
“The spirit of that, across the entire institution, is how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts,” Agnew said. “For many years we were operating as a family of different companies that complemented each other in some theoretical ways but really didn’t amplify each other.”
The “OneTSS strategic plan,” launched last summer, includes the full school integration that will roll out in the next three years.
For now the schools will remain Journeys School and Teton Valley Community School. Colloquially, staffers are already calling them the “Jackson campus” or the “Teton Valley campus.” But an official name for the one school with two campuses hasn’t been decided.
“Next year Teton Science Schools is going to be going through a rebranding process,” Heaton said. “At that time we will revisit the question as to what the school is called. Yes, eventually they will have one name.”
While changes won’t be immediately seen in the classroom, they go deeper than a unified name. It’s all about bringing the framework more into alignment, Heaton said.
There are three main areas — larger student peer groups, more teacher collaboration and the incorporation of the pre-existing graduate program — where it seems obvious for the two schools to more closely combine.
School administrators say the change makes sense given the size of both schools — roughly 100 K-8 students at Teton Valley Community School and about 160 K-12 students at Journeys School — and the overlapping communities they serve. Roughly 40 percent of Journeys’ high school students live in Idaho.
“As kids get older they want a larger social circle,” Heaton said. “We live in these small communities, yet the community clearly, in a really healthy way, is one broader Teton community. How are we actually enabling our students to see that and value that and providing learning opportunities that model that broader community?”
The integration also means more educational fluidity between the two other properties owned by the school, the Murie Ranch in Grand Teton National Park and the Kelly campus.
“Each one has their own unique feel and own unique assets,” Agnew said. “Historically, we’ve run from a campus organizational structure. But shifting and having more of a cross-campus team, that frees up our educators to bring more students to learn better where it’s best suited.”
Some integration of programs is already taking place for older students. Eighth-grade classes from both schools are getting together this week to do a project on top of Teton Pass — symbolically the midway point between the two campuses.
Other opportunities include Jackson students using Teton Valley Community School’s farm and garden setup when appropriate for their learning and Idaho students using Journeys’ ropes challenge course.
Faculty to collaborate, mentor
Teachers from both schools will have more formalized ways to work together.
“I think that there will be a huge benefit in having cross-campus teaching teams,” said Elle Shafer, an educator and the head of Teton Valley Community School’s Middle School. “It will be great just to have somebody to bounce ideas off of and to have this larger professional community that is intentionally built around the same mission.”
Shafer said all the possibilities of a unified school are “yet to be uncovered,” but overall the teacher reaction to the changes is positive.
“We’ve been told we’ll maintain what’s core to those two identities and then enhance and build where it makes sense, but not do anything that’s inauthentic to those two schools,” Shafer said. “That message has been really well received by faculty. Let’s use the resources where they are useful and beneficial and merge forces, but not turn us into something that doesn’t serve our valley. Ultimately, I think we’re headed in a good direction for the organization.”
A lot on their plate
Other facets of the schools will be leveraged in the new integration. Although details aren’t firmly ironed out, the Science Schools is working on a way of integrating the graduate program into the independent schools through an apprentice-teacher model.
“We have a lot of stuff on our plate, so to be able to share that a little bit while also getting asked questions and growing as educators by having somebody watching us and working with us and challenging us, that will be cool,” Shafer said.
Current teachers like Shafer will, and already are, having the opportunity to consult for other schools through a new rural schools network called the TSS Place Network. The new independent Teton Science Schools — one school, two campuses — is considered the hub of that network, with other schools around the country as the spokes.
Shafer has been working with a partner school in Wisconsin that’s implementing place-based education.
“We’re sharing what we’re doing, but we’re also coming back with all kinds of ideas from these rural communities that have similar challenges and also very different challenges,” she said. “These are things we can bring back to our schools. It’s another good way to grow and evolve as a school.”