Scarlett Stephenson, 5, eyed a how-to-draw book and busily sketched out a shark.
“Sharks are my favorite animal,” she said.
In a nearby classroom a group of fourth- and fifth-graders practiced a grapevine dance step as they prepared for a school play.
Welcome to Pioneer School, a K-5 secular private school for bright and capable students. Tucked away in a corner off Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley, this hidden gem is celebrating its 40th year.
Betty Burley-Wolf founded the school in 1980 and still serves as director. And teacher. And van driver.
“I saw a need for a school that would let bright children go as far as they could,” she said. “It’s a small, family-oriented environment.”
Naming the school came easily.
“It calls to mind an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse,” Burley-Wolf said. “And pioneers go forth, explore and discover something new.”
With five teachers and a maximum enrollment of 60, the school fills a niche for children who need more academic stimulation than they may receive in a public school setting.
“We’re known for providing early entrance to kindergarten for kids with fall birthdays,” Burley-Wolf said. “Public school gifted programs only offer a pull-out program one day a week. We offer a program to challenge gifted students five days a week.”
At Pioneer School, gifted doesn’t mean testing at a certain IQ point.
“That leaves out kids that are really bright, but didn’t test well on a certain day,” explained Burley-Wolf. “We’re looking for bright, curious kids. We give them a reason for learning. We want to make them lifelong learners.”
Grade placement is determined by examining all aspects of the child – social, emotional and academic – and all learning is individualized. Mixed-grade classrooms mean lots of interaction among students, with older students giving presentations to younger children.
“Gifted children cover the basics so quickly,” Burley-Wolf said. “We do topic-based instruction. The whole school covers the same topic for two months at a time. Our kids are motivated and engrossed in the topic they’re learning.”
For example, the current topic is space. Colorful planet models suspended from string decorate a classroom. On Thursday the entire school went to Mobius. Afterward students wrote reflections about their experience, while other students rehearsed dance moves for a play about space.
“We go on learning expeditions, not field trips,” Burley-Wolf said.
Soon what they’ve learned about space will be documented in the student-written and illustrated newsletter.
For musically inclined students, violin and piano lessons are offered through the school.
“We really believe in arts and music and integrating them into the curriculum,” Burley-Wolf said.
At Pioneer School much of the learning occurs outside the classroom. A row of small ski boots wait in readiness for the next trip to Mount Spokane.
During the winter students cross-country ski at Mount Spokane and tackle downhill skiing at Schweitzer.
“We focus a lot on the outdoors. We just bought snowshoes,” Burley-Wolf said. “We believe in lifetime sports for physical education. We ice skate, we ski, we bike the Centennial Trail.”
All that activity means parental help is welcomed and encouraged.
Before and after school care is available, and so are after-school activities like Spanish club and Math is Cool. Last year their fourth-grade Math is Cool won first place for the region and competed at the state tournament.
Providing a secular environment is important to Burley-Wolf.
“We’ve had students from India and China,” she said. “We are very inclusive.”
All of the school’s teachers have master’s degrees. For one of them, Jordana Schneidmiller, teaching at Pioneer School was like coming home. She is a former student.
“I was a busy, active kid,” she said. “I fell in love with learning because Pioneer School was so hands-on.”
At 64, Burley-Wolf has no plans on slowing down. She still looks forward to coming to work each day.
“We’re the little school that grew,” she said. “We added on and added on. We operate on a shoestring budget, but it’s worked for us for 40 years. Our biggest challenge is getting the word out.”
Her commitment to allowing students to shine remains undimmed.
“There’s no limit to what students can learn if you take the lid off and let them go,” she said.