The late Barbara Baker left behind quite a legacy. She was a first grade teacher in 1960 when she realized her incoming students were unprepared because her school district had dropped phonics. Despite being pregnant with her fifth child, Barbara quit teaching and started her own preschool in 1963. “I figured that if they learned phonics in preschool, no one could take that away from them,” she said.
That modest beginning—half of the students in the first class were family and friends—ultimately launched Challenger School. Jeff Davis, whose own children attended Challenger, now serves as marketing strategist for the school. He says Barbara had a huge waiting list the next year and couldn’t build fast enough to keep up with demand.
“Barbara was a powerhouse,” according to Jeff. “She recognized that there was a window of opportunity with children that you really don’t get again. She had worked as a public school teacher and had been on the Moreland School Board in California. She’d done what she could to try and improve things. But she realized these children’s opportunity was passing and the slowness of the bureaucracy didn’t satisfy her.”
Because she wanted to focus on ensuring young children learned to read, Barbara stuck to preschool and kindergarten the first few years. But parents kept asking her to expand, so she did. She added elementary grades and opened new campuses. By the 1980s, Challenger School had added middle school classes as well.
“We built our own curriculum,” says Jeff. “We’ll pull in other sources as well from the main curriculum houses. We’ve had Saxon Math for years, for instance. It’s all tailored by grade to fit what we are expecting our students to accomplish. Quite often the publishers are out of alignment with what we want to be accomplishing—usually several years behind where we’re trying to be. So we customize it for where our students are based on testing we do.”
Challenger’s course of study is designed to form a foundation for students’ future education. In keeping with Barbara’s original vision, there is a heavy emphasis on reading since that is what equips students to pursue future interests on their own. Composition is stressed to ensure students can communicate clearly. Math, according to the Challenger outlook, is like literacy for numbers. Studying history helps students understand human action and its impacts. And a focus on logic gives students the tools to evaluate new ideas. Students don’t learn these concepts in isolation—they are reinforced at multiple levels and across subjects. As students master these subjects, they get stronger in other areas.
Parents clearly like what Challenger School offers their children. There are now 27 campuses educating around 11,000 children across five states—California, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. Some locations offer only preschool and kindergarten, some go through 8th grade, and some offer something in between. The preschool/kindergarten locations typically act as feeders for the other campuses initially and then may expand to additional grades.
This year, Challenger is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Barbara Baker remained active and involved with the school as CEO until she passed away in 2012. She was a pioneer in the realm of education entrepreneurship, and many thousands of children have benefited from her vision and tenacity.
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