GOODING, Idaho — At North Valley Academy in the heart of Idaho's dairy country, a typical school day might seem like an over-the-top Fourth of July celebration elsewhere.
The public charter school in Gooding touts itself as a "patriotic" choice for parents, with a focus on individual freedoms and free market capitalism. "We teach something about patriotism every single day," said principal Cheri Vitek. "Every day in their classroom (students are) singing 'proud to be an American' and if they're not singing 'proud to be an American,' they're singing another song about America."
True enough. On this day, neat rows of students wearing their red, white and blue uniforms belted out "God bless the USA" in the school cafeteria.
North Valley Academy's patriotism emphasis is a first for Idaho, but a number of charter schools nationally focus on similar concepts, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based school choice advocate. The schools may not all present or teach in the same way, Allen said, but many "believe traditional schools have neglected teaching the importance of our nation's history, its free-market system."
North Valley Academy includes K-12th grades and was approved by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in 2008. It opened amid some outcry from Gooding's traditional public school system, but not because of the new school's curriculum.
The local district lost roughly 10 percent of its total enrollment to the new charter school that first year — along with the funding that went with it — and the town of about 3,500 suddenly had two groups of students: Those who wear uniforms and those who don't.
Far from being deterred by any sense of divide, school founder Deby Infanger is planning a second patriotic-themed charter school in Idaho Falls, which has support from Mormon businessman Frank VanderSloot, a national campaign finance co-chair for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. VanderSloot has offered to donate use of a property and refurbish a building to house the new school, Infanger said.
While the focus of the schools may mesh with conservative ideals, Infanger, who is also Mormon, said her aim is not political.
"I think there's been so much focus on this push back against capitalism, against Americanism, that people start thinking that everybody feels that way but they don't. That has not been our experience at all," Infanger said. "I have to reject the whole idea that being American is somehow controversial."
Even so, charter schools invite scrutiny when they focus on concepts that may be viewed as political, said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, which hasn't heard or voiced any concerns about North Valley Academy.
"But the public charter school commission has reason to be more proactive about investigating charter schools that go beyond ordinary public education," she said.
Hopkins cited Nampa Academy Classical, a former charter school in southwestern Idaho that tangled with state officials over use of the Bible and other religious texts in the classroom. Idaho's charter school commission closed the academy in 2010, citing troubled finances.
Infanger said she's not trying to advance a religious or a political ideology.
"We do a great job of not being political in the school," she said.
North Valley Academy's 250 students learn in classrooms named after the Founding Fathers and can recite all four stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner. They take a citizenship test in the eighth grade. Their school nickname: The Patriots. A few weeks ago the school held a "We Love America" open house.
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