A big part of Wawona's history is the one-room Wawona School that has been educating children in the small community near Yosemite's south entrance for more than 120 years.
A new chapter in the school's history begins Aug. 18 when the school opens as the Yosemite-Wawona Elementary Charter School. The school was closed four years ago for financial reasons by the Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary School District.
But thanks to the efforts of the non-profit Yosemite-Wawona Educational Foundation, established by parents and community members in 2004, the school has remained open for the past four years as a "home school."
During that time, the foundation had students enroll at Oakhurst's Mountain Home School Charter and temporarily took over the financial responsibilities and administration of the school so that Wawona and Fish Camp children could continue to be educated at their community school.
After the educational foundation petitioned the Bass Lake District, the district trustees unanimously 'authorized' the school to become a 'charter' school. Stella Pizelo, a Bass Lake District board member will also sit on the board of the new charter school.
Bass Lake District Superintendent Glenn Reid said the district has been working with Wawona Educational Foundation for the past year on the development of the charter school.
"The group has put a lot of effort into preparing for the opening of the school on Aug. 18," Reid said. "There are a vast number of tasks that had to be dealt with in preparation for their 'grand opening.' Many challenges remain, but I think they are going to be ready and able to provide a great educational experience for students who live in the park. The district has happily provided support to the new charter, and they have accomplished a lot in a relatively short time. On behalf of the Bass Lake District, we wish them well in this endeavor."
The school will offer two programs: The 'core' program has students attending class five days a week and the 'flex' program offers a home-study option that offers support for home-school families along with group instruction classes.
The goal for this year is to open with 15 students, and eventually grow to about 25 students.
The school will operate with an annual budget of about $140,000, which is made up of public school state funds, federal funding money, fundraised dollars and donations. As enrollment increases over the next few years the budget will grow as "per-student" state funds increase.
This one-room, multi-age school has been in existence in Wawona since the mid-1890s. Since that time, three buildings have been used for the school to serve children of Wawona, Fish Camp, and some Yosemite West residents, as well as National Park Service and park concessionaire (Delaware North) employees.
The latest school building, a modern 4,000 square-foot facility, was built in 1996.
The new charter school will follow in the tradition of the school that have been established through the years.
According to Michelle Stauffer, the school's administrator, the foundation of the charter school's academic program will include a multi-age classroom where students will work in large groups, small groups and individually. Stauffer served the school as the teaching principal for 29 years prior to the 2010 closure.
"We will use an integrated curriculum, project-based learning, visual and performing arts, and a well-equipped technology center," Stauffer said.
"Students will be encouraged to be active learners as they take risks, imagine, investigate, question and create," teacher Esmé McCarthy said. "The role of the parents in the learning environment will be to assist children in finding their own unique gifts and talents by challenging, accelerating, supporting and encouraging their children."
McCarthy said students, staff and parents will be kept informed of students' progress through a variety of assessment tools that are designed to enhance each student's ability to self-assess and adjust his own learning, and guide the teacher in helping adjust the student's curriculum.
"From my experience, one of the greatest strengths of this one-room school has always been the multi-age environment where students and staff spend several years together, which truly creates a sense of affection and respect for one another," Stauffer explained. "It creates a comfortable, supportive atmosphere where communication is open and learning becomes enjoyable. The children flourish in this caring environment, and feel they are part of the Wawona School family."
Long time Wawona resident Ed Mee, served as chairman of the Yosemite-Wawona Education Foundation for several years. Mee, was a member of the Wawona pioneer Gordon family. His great-grandfather (Tom Gordon) and his grandfather (Eddie Gordon) were stagecoach drivers from Wawona to Yosemite Valley between the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Tom Gordon was the stagecoach driver when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903.
Mee has strong ties to the school his mother (Gladys Gordon) and two of his uncles attended Wawona School, as did his daughter Kelly.
"When we first heard there was the possibility of the school closing as far back as 10 years ago, it became the top priority of the Wawona Area Property Owners Association to help keep the school open," Mee said. "The school is the linkpin that holds this community together," Mee said. "Without a school, communities no longer exist."
Mee agrees with Stauffer about the unique benefits children experience from a multi-age classroom.
"The older students help the younger ones and it makes for a great learning environment," Mee said. "There is also something very special about a teacher being with a child from Kindergarten through 8th grade. The teacher really takes ownership of that child's success."
Mee said the school over the years has developed a close working relationship with the National Park Service and NatureBridge, allowing the school to offer many aspects of environmental education including forest management, ranger activities, geology, plants, and animals."
During the winter months, the student's spend one day a week at Badger Pass learning to ski.
Praise for one-classroom school
Dale and Rebekah Wohlgemuth, moved to Fish Camp just over two years ago and their daughter, Erica, just finished second grade at Wawona School.
"We have come to appreciate the excellence afforded our daughter with the attention and care she has received at the school," Dale said. "The ability for our daughter to excel at her own pace regardless of her grade level is a rare opportunity not usually found in a larger public school system. She has told us countless times that she does not ever want to leave this school."
Wohlgemuth said he would encourage any parents with children needing one-on-one attention in the learning process to check out the possibilities at the school this coming school year.
Gregory Royse, a senior at Yosemite High School, has high praise for his former one-classroom school.
"I feel that I am going to go on to do great things, solely because of the wonderful and unique experiences that I gained at Wawona School," Royse said. "Wawona School offered to me what larger schools failed to offer, like individualized learning, one-on-one teaching, the opportunity to express creative outlets in a welcoming environment. The person I became because of Wawona School has allowed me to pursue passions of mine in high school with curiosity and willingness to learn. It is for that amazing and unique learning experience that I will thank Wawona School for the rest of my life."
Stauffer is looking forward to the new school year.
"We are very fortunate to live in a mountain community that truly values education," Stauffer said. "Of course we all want to do what's best for our children. So we are thrilled to be able to provide a 'small school charter' option for Mountain Area students who might need this kind of a setting to thrive. It's going to be a great school year in Wawona."
Registration is now open to all children in Madera and Mariposa counties and beyond. First day of school is Monday, Aug.18.
Details: Wawona Elementary Charter School, Esmé McCarthy, (209) 375-6383, Michelle Stauffer, (209) 375-6494, yosemitewawonacharter.org.
NOTE: Wawona Elementary Charter School's goals, academic philosophy, and mission statement can be seen at sierrastar.com.