Alpine Valley Academy’s students will return this fall ready to vote on the school’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, masks aren’t required, and we believe that people are free to make their choices, and we will not allow shaming of those, because it’s in our rules,” said Mark Cluff, chairman of the board and founder of Alpine Valley Academy, a nonprofit private school in Lehi.

Following a mandate from Gov. Gary Herbert, students in Utah’s public schools will be required to wear face masks in the fall. At Alpine Valley Academy, students and staff will vote on its procedures. 

The Lehi school opened two years ago and had 23 students last year, with the potential to grow up to 80. The school utilizes self-directed learning, sees play as essential to learning and has a Constitutional Republic governing model that includes a school council, judicial council and executive council, giving each student and staff a vote.

There are no uniforms, imposed tests, grades or curriculum. Instead of assigning age-based grade levels, it intermixes students ages 5 to 18.

Full-time tuition is $4,990 a year and part-time student tuition is $3,990 a year.

Cluff, a former member of the Utah State Board of Education, founded the school after searching the country for alternative options for public education. After years of study, he decided to model the school after Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. 

“I have truly come to believe in this model, and especially after two years of watching it,” Cluff said. “I have seen kids come in with anxiety after being in public school, and their whole life turns around and their parents are amazed they are different people than they are before.”

Cluff said the model isn’t for everybody, which is why the school requires families to tour the facility and undergo an interview before they apply.

Students choose what they study and work on throughout the day, with mentors available to answer questions.

“We believe that children learn at their own pace and when they are ready to learn and when they are interested in learning,” Cluff said.

The small school has a library, an art room and a dance room, along with classrooms and a 3-D printer. Students also have access to 5,000 online courses.

“We have lots of resources for them to look at and choose,” Cluff said. “They talk with mentors about goals and what they are striving to achieve in their life.”

The school council, which is made up of all the students and staff members, votes on creating and adjusting the school’s rules. At times, Cluff said, that involves seeing the unintentional consequences that come from a new rule and learning from the process. 

“It is amazing to see them,” Cluff said. “They stand up, they debate, they discuss, they let their feelings be known, and it is amazing.”

The council also approves the school’s budget, manages discretionary funds and approves of and can remove staff.

If a complaint is filed against a student, they stand before the school’s judicial council. If they don’t admit guilt, there’s an investigation and the council votes on a sentence.

The school closed for the 2019-2010 academic year in March, one week after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed public education online.

“When we closed down, it was really, really hard,” Cluff said. 

He said it was the right choice, and students have been eager to return to school. 

The school passed along the Utah State School Board of Education’s recommendations for the upcoming school board to its board of trustees to review and discuss. It then passed out a proposal to students and parents − which will include making masks optional − and will vote on the plan once the academic year begins. 

Cluff said the decision to make masks optional may change if Herbert issues a statewide mandate requiring  everyone to wear a mask.

The school has non-contact thermometers, has 14 rooms to spread students out, has displayed hand-washing diagrams, has a safe room in case someone feels ill and has an emergency supply of masks on hand. It is asking parents to keep symptomatic children at home.

Cluff said the school has been contacted by more parents looking for information and tours following the governor’s public school mask mandate. 

The academy expects to see more interest in the fall.

“I am thinking that maybe once school starts and parents see how it is for their children in public school, they might look into something else,” he said.

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