Over 30 Years of Clark Fork School
The idea of Clark Fork School started to take shape around the kitchen table of Rosie Buzzas in 1982. The mother of a five year old son, Aaron, Rosie was beginning to look at educational opportunities in Missoula. She knew she wanted Aaron to attend a school that reinforced and perpetuated her values and parenting style. Her dream for her son's early childhood learning experience was a continuation of the purposeful, nurturing and empathetic environment she promoted as a mother.
In Missoula at the time, there were only a couple of preschool programs offering the educational style she sought- and they had waiting lists and were expensive. She decided to pull together some other families seeking similar ideals and see what could become of their collective efforts. Things really began to come to fruition when they contacted Catherine Schuck, an educator who had just returned from Alaska with her young family. Catherine was the visionary and had the knowledge to pull all of the aspects of education into this new entity. In many informal meetings, sitting around the kitchen table, babies on their laps and kids playing at their feet, sipping Vienna Café, the creation of their school began to take shape.
The founding parents rented their first classroom at Lincoln School in the Rattlesnake. An organization called the Imagination Station inhabited the building which had been a public school until 1981. The first class of 15 preschoolers began classes in the fall of 1983 in the care of Catherine Schuck. The fledgling school was named Clark Fork School.
From those early meetings, the school began to develop its principles — parent involvement, collective decision making, cooperation, respect — even through disagreement. They wanted to keep the school as affordable as possible and it was important that it not become an "exclusive" program. In true cooperative spirit, families were required to participate by offering time, services and opinions to help the school progress.
It didn't take long for the idea of Clark Fork School to catch on. Rosie and Catherine were great spokeswomen for the school, parents touted its virtues and word of mouth about Clark Fork spread in Missoula. By the following year, the founders were seeking a more permanent home for the school. After looking at many properties, they settled on a small house located at 432 E. Pine Street. One parent offered legal expertise and another signed the loan for the property. Parents took up tasks of cleaning, painting and readying the space for the growing student body. Early years on Pine Street offered preschool and kindergarten-primary combination classes. The teachers adjusted their programs to suit the student population each year.
During these formative years, the founders and teachers continued to cultivate and refine the educational philosophy of the school. They believed in "development of the whole child," interactive and experiential education, and a model that promoted academics within a holistic framework. They remained realistic about the costs of running a school- providing teachers with decent wages, paying a mortgage and utilities- and were creative about their resources and supplies. Parents continued to support the school through tuition and donations. They often provided little "luxuries" when the teachers dreamed aloud.
Throughout the years on Pine Street, the character of the school continued to ripen- music, puppet productions, community gatherings, children's meetings and frequent excursions into the world all became part of the school's early culture. The school's environment fostered self-esteem, a sense of belonging, a strong foundation for critical thinking and exceptional creativity. Many parents have attributed their children's love of learning and academic strengths to the nurturing and education they received from Clark Fork School.
Challenges presented themselves, as happens in all organizations, but people's commitment to the school and its underlying spirit of cooperation helped turn growing pains into success. The process of resolution through discussion and respectful engagement became a teaching opportunity for the children. This remains an ideal and tenet of the school's philosophy.
Even as the founders moved on to other experiences, new groups of kids, parents, and teachers circulated through, each making their own contributions and helping shape the school's future. Dedicated and visionary teachers were instrumental in perpetuating and expanding on the dream of the founders.
Enrollment fluctuated from year to year in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Program offerings remained fluid to accommodate the demands presented. Additional participation in the primary program required an off-site location in the basement of a church on South Avenue. The challenging circumstances of space limitations prompted the parent body and teachers to look for a new location that could adapt to the organization's growing programs.
In 1993 the property on Rattlesnake Drive was discovered. A one-story pink rancher with red trim and dark paneling- parents and teachers were able to see possibility in the property which included a large yard and dirt lot to accommodate a parking lot. The process to gain neighborhood acceptance was not without strife. Fear of change, traffic increases and noisy children were expressed by neighbors around the school. When the city granted permits to the school, a major remodeling took place during the summer and the school moved into its present location in the fall of 1994. The school has integrated itself well into the neighborhood and cherishes the outdoor space as a recreational and learning asset for its students. The location's accessibility to larger outdoor "classrooms" has become an integral part of the Clark Fork experience in recent years.
As Clark Fork School approached its 25th year, a capital campaign was launched to expand the school. Through this expansion, the school was able to add a second preschool class and expand on its kindergarten and primary programs. It also added an administrative office, a small kitchen, and a library/multi-purpose room. Today we have about two-hundred children enrolled in our various programs, 22 teachers, and 2.5 administrative staff.
Recent accomplishments include the development of cohesive educational techniques to help facilitate the educational experiences of a larger group of students. Parent-run boards work to make decisions and develop systems to ensure the stability of the school and the promotion of teacher creativity and security. A constant effort is made to plan for the school's future and promote stability, while still honoring the history and spontaneity of the school's alumni families and teachers have so beautifully encouraged throughout the years.
In the spirit of the school's grassroots beginning, children, families and teachers continue to ebb and flow through the unique entity that is Clark Fork School. Most years have seen harmony and fulfillment of the educational experience dreamed of by Rosie Buzzas, Catherin Schuck, and the other founding families around the dining table over 25 years ago. There are continual musings, wishes, and concerns, but the process of designing a school that meets the needs of its whole community is part of the experience and the experiment. While many of the original students of Clark Fork School are well into their adulthood, the school's current flock of children is just discovering their love of learning. It will be amazing to see what the next 30 years brings for Clark Fork School.