Frequently Asked Questions about the Organization of Opal School

1. What is your hiring process?

We advertise open positions listing the requirements and qualifications
that we are seeking.

We ask for a resume, letter of interest and three professional references.
The applicants are screened by the Museum’s human resources department to see
if they meet the minimum requirements. Screening means one or more of the
following: reading their resume and letter, inviting them for an informal chat,
and/or a phone or email conversation and a check of references. For most
positions, we have at least 2 rounds of interviews: the first with Opal staff
and the second with parents. In addition to interviews, we invite the applicant
to share a portfolio of images and stories, and we ask the applicant an
open-ended question that requires an on-site written response of 2 to 3 pages.  The intention is to evaluate the applicant’s
quality of thinking and writing skills. If the applicant is currently teaching
in a local school, a staff member observes the applicant’s classroom when school
is in session. Non-local applicants are asked to send us a 30-minute video of
classroom instruction.

 2. How are students selected for Opal School?
Do you have special education students?

Opal Public Charter School students are selected through an open lottery
process and come from neighborhoods all over the city. The lottery process is
determined by Oregon Charter Law as set by our state legislature. No students
have preference for admission to charters except current siblings. We can’t
balance for gender, race, background, or neighborhoods. Because we want our
school to reflect the diversity of our community, in an effort to achieve greater diversity we only actively recruit
students from populations that may not hear about us otherwise.  Twenty-two percent of students self-identify as children of
color. Twenty percent of our children take advantage of the free
or reduced lunch program. 

Parents of
children with special needs often look for a school with small classes where
their children will be treated with respect and care, thus they are attracted
to charter schools. If parents choose to go through the formal Special
Education evaluation process provided by the Portland Public School District
and their children qualify for services, then the children receive on-site
services at Opal from the Portland Public School District Special Education
Department.  Eighteen percent of Opal students have IEP's corresponding to their special needs (special rights). 

3. What about teacher placement? Do teachers
loop with their students?

Most of our classrooms are mixed-age classrooms, so often children have
the same teacher for at least two years. 
This fall, we started with a configuration to gently welcome in our
new Kindergarteners and their families. 
The Kindergarteners are in a smaller class of approximately 15 children
with one teacher.  Our 5th grade
has 17 students with one teacher too.   The more
intimate class size supports the 5th graders transition in leaving
Opal and allows them to spend more time outside the classroom engaged in
experiential learning and putting their skills to use in our community.  This configuration allows for more
flexibility and collaboration between teachers, their students and
families.  Then we have a 1st/
2nd grade and a 3rd/4th grade, with approximately
28 students and one full-time teacher and one part-time teacher in each mixed
grade class.  Teachers are often
placed where they will be most successful and frequently we challenge teachers
to move to a grade level that is new to them.  This can be especially helpful when they have the
opportunity to move up with a class they have already taught for a year or more.  We have a part-time Outdoor Education
Specialist supporting all four of our elementary classes.

 4. What about report cards?

We started out with 10 key areas that teachers reported on in narrative
form. Over the years this was too time consuming. We have tried several
different versions.  Now we use a
combination of narrative and check lists. The areas addressed are: The student
as a member of the community. The student as a communicator of oral and written
language. The student as a communicator through the arts. The students as a
mathematical thinker. The student as a researcher and scientific thinker. The
student as a mindful steward of the planet.

Our reports also give the reading, writing and spelling developmental
phase of the student and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level.  For the 2012-13 school year we are developing
an online portfolio-based assessment system that families, teachers and
students can interact with throughout the year.

 5. Where do Opal School materials come from?

We are constantly on the lookout for materials.  We’ve discovered that when your awareness about the kinds of
materials that engage children increases, you begin to see them everywhere. We
have a number of local and on-line sources.  

following are items we use regularly and find quite useful. Generally, we stay
with certain brands (as you will see below), and then search our local stores
and the web for the best value. Internet addresses are given to help you view
the product, but may or may not have the best value. 

Furniture & blocks: Community Playthings: P.O. Box 2, Ulster
Park, NY, 12487, 1-800-777-4244,

Handmade Paper Assortments:
we typically order the Super Scrap Packs

K’nex construction found at many toy stores 

Kapla contact distributor directly to see if
discount is available for large orders

Pens for Writing: Uni-ball Vision Elite in black

Pens for Other Purposes: Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip Black

Pencils: Dixon Ticonderoga pencils #2.5 medium soft lead

Pencil Erasers: Staedtler Mars Plastic Erasers (major
chains like Office Depot carry these)

Permanent Sharpie blackline fine point pens (for use with water color work)

Potter’s Clays (locate a local source, but make sure it is clean,
edible clay). In Portland we get our clay from Georgies

Sculpie Clay

Shrinky Dinks

Tempera Paint: Rich art Liquid
Fresco Tempera: P. O. Box 198, Northvale, NJ 07647, tel: 201-767-0009. You many
be able to call this number and find a distributor in your area. Another good
place to start would be your local craft stores. Sometimes nationwide stores
like Jo-Ann Fabrics or Michael’s will carry this, and if you watch ads it does
go on sale every so often.

Watercolor pencils:  Karat brand 

Watercolor crayons:  Karat brand 

For projects with cardboard we have used the
following supplies:


Retail Glass Cubes: Used to
display connectors to connect the cardboard together. Found at any retail
fixture store and very commonly may be found used.

Box Rivets:

Black & Decker Cordless Power Scissors,
Model # SZ360T:
usually available wherever power tools are sold,
locally Fred Meyers has them on sale every so often.

6. How is the charter school financed?

The average budget for the Opal Charter (K-5) is about $520,000. An
approximate breakout for the revenue is as follows: $365K state per pupil fees.
$35K program fees (parents pay $38/month). $50K from grants/foundations, $25K individual
gifts, $20K parent fundraising, $25K from Museum School fees which support the Charter

Expenses: $520,000: $470K salaries, taxes & benefits; $25K materials
and supplies; $10K food; $5 K audit; $10K furniture and technology.

 7. How do you determine placement of children?

Opal is an ungraded school. We have 6 classrooms: Preschool, Early
Kindergarten, Charter Kindergarten, Charter 1st/ 2nd
mixed grade classroom, Charter 3rd/4th mixed grade
classroom and the Charter 5th grade. The Preschool and Early K children
are for children ages 3-6. We place children where we think they will thrive
based on our knowledge of the child and our conversations with parents.

 8. How does the lottery process work?


Children who
attended Opal during the 2012-2013 school year and siblings who meet the age
requirements pre-register in January 2013 if they intend to return in the fall.


The 2013-2014
lottery season opens March 1, 2013 and closes March 31, 2013. Each family who
enrolls a child or children in the lottery will be assigned a number. Then, a third
party uses a computer program to generate all the numbers on a list in random
order. This process will take place in April after all the data has been
entered from the lottery enrollment forms. Starting from the top of the
randomized list of family numbers, children will be placed in one of six lists
according to their grades: Kindergarten through fifth grade. The process will
continue until all class lists are full. The remaining families are placed on a
“wait list” in the order their number was selected by the lottery.

Meetings & Classroom Visitations

Once children
are selected through the lottery process, families are notified and invited to
attend an orientation meeting and to visit the classrooms. They are given ample
opportunity to see if Opal is a school that parents would like their child to
attend. If some parents choose not to register their children after the
orientation meeting or should a space open, we start at the top of the lottery
“wait list” to select new names. This process continues until all spaces are
filled for the school year. We do not accept new applications for the lottery
during the school year unless there are no names on the waitlist for a specific
grade. Names from this or previous lotteries are not carried over from year to
year. Families who applied to the 2012-2013 lottery must re-apply to the 2013-2014
lottery if they wish to try again.

Notification for Families not
Selected by Lottery

Once the registration process is
complete, the families who were not selected by the lottery process will
receive a letter informing them of the lottery results. Our goal is to complete
the entire process by mid-May.

9. What do we know about the success of our

We have approximately 100 graduates
who have moved on to middle school. Our informal conversations and a small
number of more formal interviews with the students and parents indicate that
they are doing very well.  Students,
who struggled with one academic area or another, are still facing those
challenges to some degree. Students who were passionate and skilled in
particular areas are still exceeding school expectations for their age groups. Our oldest Opal School graduates will finish high school in June of 2013. We are looking forward to knowing more about their future plans!

10.  What about teacher schedules and use of

Full-time teachers are scheduled
to work from 8am to 4pm. Part-time teachers have a variety of different
schedules based on the needs of the school. Children leave at 2:45pm on MTTHF,
leaving the teachers about 1 hour for planning after dismissal. Teachers also
have an hour or more of planning time during the school day when they are not
responsible for children, and they each have a 30-minute lunch break.  On Wednesday we have early dismissal at
1:30pm. On Wednesdays from 2-4pm, we have staff development meeting. The
schedule for the teaching day varies from classroom to classroom and from
season to season. We have a PE/Outdoor Education Specialist who works with all
four elementary classes, four days a week.

11.  What about storage of materials?

We try to only have materials in
the classroom that are in use. We have separate storage areas, but they are
never sufficient. We struggle with issues of storage and have not come up with
any satisfying solutions.

12.  What are the challenges and successes of
Opal School?

As a Charter we face many challenges.
Here is a sampling. Facilities: we
don’t have a gym, a full-size kitchen, a full-size library or indoor play area.
We have to use what we do have in very creative ways. Staffing: Our teachers work 20 days longer than other public school
teachers and are paid more than 20% less, although they are the highest paid
charter school teachers in the district. Space:
We share space with the Portland Children’s Museum and that can be difficult.
For example, the classrooms are used for Winter & Spring Break Camps during
the school year. We have to break down the classrooms and set them up which
takes time and effort. In the summer all classrooms are used for Summer Camps. Technology: Our work requires good
computers, voice recorders, video, CD players, overheads, digital cameras, and
digital projectors. Every 5 years, most of this equipment needs to be replaced.
We have been successful in getting grants to fund this equipment, but it’s an
on-going challenge. Transportation:
Charters in Oregon are required to provide transportation, but receive no funds
from the state for this purpose. We write grants to help with this cost for our
low-income students who need support. Communication
with families:
Our parents come from all over the city and from diverse
backgrounds. We are a small school and we want to be in close communication
with families. However, we often feel too stretched to do this well and are
continually looking for new systems and solutions.

Our successes keep us going and
make working at Opal a joyful, inspiring experience for teaching and learning much
of the time. A few examples: Children’s
quality of thinking:
We are continually amazed at the abilities of children
of all ages to tackle and chew on big ideas in creative and imaginative ways. Curriculum: Our inquiry-based
approaches to learning lead us to surprising places and in awe of the young
minds that we work with daily. We have invented new structures in response to
what we are learning from the children including: Story Workshop, Literacy
Studio, and more. Collaboration: We
have set up expectations for across grade collaboration as well as planning
with specialists to support teamwork and we meet as a whole team weekly. This
work couldn’t happen without this opportunity to dive into meaningful work and
reflect together on what’s happened and where we can go next.  Environments:
The classrooms are designed to provide for movement, gathering places, studio
work, a variety of materials and even some cooking experiences. Outdoor environments: We have access to
Washington Park, the arboretum, lovely hiking trails, meadows and redwood
forests. Parent support: We couldn’t
do this work without the support of parents and the many volunteer jobs that
they take on to keep the school going from shopping for food, fundraising
events, serving on focus committees, deep cleaning in the classrooms, mentoring
students, office support, IT support and much more.

What surprised you?

What questions would you like to see added to the list?

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1 Comment

  • So impressed and relieved that you posted your challenges. When seeing so many amazing things it’s easy to feel inadequate and wonder how you make it look so easy. Knowing you also face challenges, some of which we share and some of which we don’t, makes me feel less exposed or vulnerable and more willing to put our challenges on the table in our work as well. Thank you!

    Ingrid Smith Reply

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