A seed dream: Finding the vision for Chrysalis Charter School

Alysia and Paul Krafel loved the outdoors–and they wanted their students to feel the same. Read how they created the teacher-powered Chrysalis Charter School, a school dedicated to nature studies and hands-on learning.

“My flower is blooming, Paul. I named her Elizabeth, and she is blooming! Yesterday she was only a bud!” The student examined the flower through a magnifying glass, her eyes sparkling.

“What will she look like tomorrow?” asked Paul.

“Don’t know. I never knew plants were so interesting!”

The next day, the student couldn’t wait to get out onto the playground to see what her flower “Elizabeth” would look like. But to her dismay, the flower had lost its pretty purple petals and now had a tiny pointy thing sticking out of it.

So Paul, my co-teacher and husband, asked the kids to go out and find ten examples showing the series of changes a plant goes through as it grows from a bud to a flower to a seed. This way they could discover that the “pointy thing” was the beginning of a seedpod growing from the flower.

Off the kids went, happily taping their plant samples to index cards. One boy, however, grew frustrated. He had the beginning and end stages of the plant, but no middle ones. He knew he was missing the connecting piece necessary to understand the complete cycle.

So Paul searched for an example and gave it to the boy. When he placed it in the middle of the other plant samples, the boy’s outburst of joy was spontaneous and full of delight.

Meanwhile, I was working nearby with a group of students studying ants. I showed the students how to bait cards with jelly and tuna to attract the insects. The students were skeptical at first. But an hour or two later, they started shouting, “The ants are all over the tuna!”

One boy said, “I didn’t know ants liked meat.”

“Well, they eat bugs, so I guess that’s meat too,” another boy observed.

These classes—teaching nature studies on school playgrounds—started as a program offered by the Carter House Natural Science Museum in Redding, California.  Paul and I taught these classes for two years, developing different sets of curricula and assisting local public school teachers in getting kids outside to do nature science.

Paul and I loved the work—particularly the delight students showed during those afternoon classes. All of this raised some provoking questions for us. We wondered: What could happen if there were a nature school that emphasized hands-on learning for kids? What if this delight in learning and understanding and valuing life all around us could be nurtured at school?

The seminal seed of our passion for teaching science and natural history to children was planted—and began to blossom.

Around that same time, California passed its first law enabling the creation of charter schools, with the hope that new, creative models for public education would arise. Helen Hawk, a teacher and a board member of the Carter House Natural Science Museum, encouraged Paul and I to use a spare classroom in the museum to start a charter school. I had a following of parents and children who regularly attended my science classes, and they were thrilled by the idea of a nature school.

Before we knew it, Paul and I had a classroom, eager students, and a curriculum. The next step was getting a charter from a school district.

This part wasn’t as easy. Paul and I had to write a complex chartering document that explained our vision, how we would achieve it, how we would measure whole-school and student success, who would govern the school and how, how would we manage the money and reporting, and how students and teachers would be selected.

All this was happening at a time when charters in California were very new—and teacher-powered schools were unheard of. There were no models for us to follow. But we had hope that we could become one of the few museum schools in the country with a charter sponsored by a public school district.

When we first approached a school board to sponsor us, they read the proposal and said no way—we were crazy. On the second try, we found a sympathetic school board and superintendent, but the teachers union didn’t buy in. Negotiations that had taken us months collapsed. During our third attempt, we had a supportive school board, superintendent, and teachers to sign the charter—but county office officials balked over liability insurance. Negotiations collapsed again.

At this point, we were so determined to sprout our school that we started Chrysalis as a museum “program” (not a charter school) in our classroom with four students, one teacher, myself, and no money. But by the end of that first year, we had 15 students in our program and a set of parents who were contributing whatever cash they could to keep it going.

Our work on the charter continued. Finally, a retired principal who loved the idea of a teacher-powered science and nature school joined our team. He used his connections to line up district support, and the charter was finally granted in May 1996.

It took three long years, but Chrysalis Charter School opened in the fall with two teachers and forty students. The seed had sprouted—and continues to grow today. Our teachers have created a science and nature studies program and a school with some of the best test scores in the county, a high teacher retention rate, students who are thriving emotionally and academically, and a delighted and a supportive parent group.

Today, Chrysalis has a full-time teaching staff of twelve, a paraprofessional staff of eight, and a student body of 180 students in grades K-8. The mission of our school is “to encourage the light within each student to shine brighter”—and we do that every day.  We work to encourage the twinkle in students’ eyes that appears when understanding flashes across their minds, when their hearts are touched by the work we all do together, or when they are treated kindly at school.

Our staff has built Chrysalis into a gentle but strong community. Our school is collaboratively operated by teachers who have the academic freedom to meet the needs of their students the best way they know how. Having the collective freedom to manage curriculum, budget, staffing, scheduling, and evaluation allows teachers and staff to express their creativity in ways that encourage their own light to shine—so they can nourish the same light in their students.

Alysia Krafel began her teaching career at the University of California at Irvine’s Farm Elementary School, a lab school devoted to creative learning. She and her husband Paul founded the teacher-powered Chrysalis Charter School in Palo Alto, CA in 1996. Alysia currently serves as an ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative and can be reached at alysia@teacherpowered.org.

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