AR-308280316By Janet Eastman

Posted Aug. 28, 2013 at 12:01 AM
Updated Aug 28, 2013 at 2:35 AM

While most Medford schoolchildren spent Tuesday skipping through the last free days of summer or shopping for glue sticks and other supplies before classes start Sept. 3, students enrolled in the new charter school, VIBES, were completing their second day of academic study.

By 3 p.m., their day was not over.

There would be a few more hours of enrichment classes in nutrition, arts, music and dance, all selected to help close achievement gaps experienced by some high-risk and struggling children.

The new school also offers its almost 150-strong student body physical education and project-based science classes.

Today, kids learned the similarities between whales, snakes and humans, and that all animals are unique.

To make sure students get the extra help they need, the charter school limits class size to 25 and offers a third more instructional days than Medford public schools’ 170 class days, said Tom Cole, founder and executive director of Kids Unlimited, an after-school program that oversees and houses the school.

VIBES students are on campus from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., while other schools end at 2:30 p.m. and have early release days.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided. In mid-afternoon, the children were crunching on carrots and other snacks.

Cole and educators spent a year researching the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods grant program and touring successful charter schools around the country to design the school’s curriculum.

“We realized we needed to look at developing early childhood partnerships for children living in poverty and English as a Second Language students,” he said.

A surprise to Cole is that the new charter school’s enrollment stretches across economic levels and beyond city borders to Central Point, Phoenix and Talent.

“Many families wanted in,” he said.

There is one spot open for first grade and second grade, and 13 spots open for third grade, he said.

VIBES is an acronym for Vitality in Becoming Educated Socially, a long-standing mission of Kids Unlimited, an after-school program that began with a $500 grant 15 years ago.

It is now one of the largest youth-serving organizations in the area, providing tutoring, summer camps, community programs and now a charter school.

In 2005, Kids Unlimited reached its goal of moving into its own building, a former bowling alley at 821 N. Riverside Ave.

Today, new classrooms divide up a vast space where bowling balls once bounced down wooden lanes.

Volunteers painted the walls and Medford Rotary Club members cleaned used school desks found in the district warehouse.

“It was dirty work,” Cole said. “These people are judges and businessmen without children in the school but who understand the importance of this community.”

In these rooms that still smelled like fresh paint on Tuesday, third-graders were building robots, second-graders were practicing the alphabet and first-graders were politely raising their hands to talk about manners.

“Showing them to address each other and adults respectfully is part of our teaching,” Cole said while standing in a hallway as children in polo shirts embroidered with the school logo passed by and gave him high-fives or shook his hand. “These children are our ambassadors.”

Kids Unlimited’s next goal is to construct a building to be used as an early childhood learning center.

Over the years, Cole hopes to also have a full-day kindergarten program and expand the charter school one grade.

For now, six bilingual teachers are busy in their classrooms, guiding 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds in reading, writing and math.

The Singapore Math method, which emphasizes problem solving and model drawing, allows teachers to instruct a classroom with children who have varying abilities.

“Math is an area of concern in Oregon,” Cole said.

The reading and language arts curriculum, called Success for All, was selected based on high test results in Oregon.

The years-long effort to gain approval for a charter school from the Medford School District was a challenge, Cole said.

“It was difficult because we were asking an institution to change,” he said. “Now that we’re open, we have a year to prove through our students’ performance that this charter school works.”

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or