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The Juniper School welcomes its first sixth grade class

Charter school will add seventh, eighth grades over the next two years
The Juniper School sixth grade teacher Leah Roche works with students Jazmyn Medina, 11, Kiley Westward, 11, and Eva Gomez, 11, on Friday as they study language arts. The school added the sixth grade class this year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Juniper School added sixth grade this year as a way to bring its nontraditional education to students in the middle grades.

Seventh grade will be added in the 2023-24 school year and eighth grade added in 2024-25. The change increased Juniper’s enrollment from 145 students to 165.

The addition of these grades was a result of struggles students were having in the transition to a different style of education at the middle school level, said Juniper Head of School Philip Werline.

“For us, a lot of students struggle when they go to middle school,” he said. “There’s just too many changes and shifts. We like to keep a smaller learning environment and limit each grade level to like 24 students.”

Juniper offers an alternative style of education that uses the Montessori philosophy, which encourages self-motivation and mindfulness.

“We place a higher emphasis on social-emotional learning,” Werline said. “We’ll continue to provide those supports and social-emotional curriculum throughout. For example, we’re big on restorative practices and mindfulness breaks.”

Werline said the school uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which includes emphasis on self-actualization, self-esteem, belonging, safety needs and physiological needs.

“We spend a lot of time making sure kids feel supported,” he said.

Before deciding on the addition of these grades, Werline surveyed Juniper staff members and families to figure out how to use available space at the school. He received feedback that adding sixth through eight grades would be the most beneficial because many students struggle with the transition to the middle grades.

Juniper School sixth grade class teacher, Leah Roche, works with students on Friday as they study language arts. The school added the sixth grade class this year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Werline said the school day will look different for the middle grades compared with other middle schools. Students won’t have the typical period structure most middle schools follow – first period, second period, etc. Students will still see other teachers throughout the day, but to keep class sizes consistent, these grades will not see a new teacher every hour.

“Some people just like a smaller, tighter-knit community. So to me, it’s about community and culture,” he said.

Werline said parent support for the school’s expansion has been strong. He said the decision was almost unanimous.

With the addition of more students, the school did not have to undergo any structural renovations because space was already available.

But because of the growth over the next two years, Werline would like to modernize the library and add a separate building for a digital makerspace.

“We have room for a library, but I would like to make that space a little bit more permanent and grow that space a bit more. That would include building an additional building,” he said

Werline said he would like the school to have computers specific for graphic design and have video production classes.

He takes pride in the school’s success with the nontraditional model.

“We were the No. 1 school of all charter schools and the No. 1 school for all the schools in the Southwest based on overall student growth,” he said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

The Juniper School added sixth grade classes this year as part of its plan to add middle school grades to the charter school. (Durango Herald file)
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