Moab Charter School Director James Lewis, with students and P.E. teacher Charles Diem (center row, wearing baseball cap). [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

James Lewis is a patient man.

For the last five years, he’s been sitting on his school administrator’s license, just waiting for the opportunity to use it. That opportunity finally came up when he noticed an online advertisement which said that Moab Charter School was looking for a new director.

“Right away, when I saw it, I knew that it was something that I was interested in,” he said.

Lewis applied for – and got the job, and he reported to the school’s office for the first time in early June. He worked closely with former MCS Director Emma Weiss until she left the following month, getting ready for the current school year that began this week.

When that day finally arrived on Monday, Aug. 15, Lewis was feeling confident and upbeat about the weeks and months to come.

“It’s a fun time (to be here),” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on.”

While he waited for the chance to put his administrator’s license to use, Lewis wasn’t exactly idle for the past half-decade. Far from it, in fact.

He came to the job from Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, where he mainly taught social studies – including history and government – for nine years at the high school and junior high levels.

Before then, he spent two years teaching at Navajo Mountain High School, which educates students from the Navajo Nation’s most isolated chapter. The school is located at the end of the pavement in far southern Utah, some 30-plus miles from the nearest gas station and convenience store, and closer to Page, Arizona, than any major community in San Juan County.

“He was very concerned about the welfare of the students on the Navajo Nation,” former Whitehorse High School teacher and colleague Tyler Price said. “It’s pretty rough, and our primary concern was the safety of our students.”

According to Price, Lewis worked hard to help their students meet certain expectations, participate in their communities and get them to the places where they want to be in life.

Price, who has since moved on to work for the Carbon County School District, said that the teaching community in Montezuma Creek dealt with some pretty stressful situations last year. Faced with those situations, Price said, Lewis was instrumental in suicide prevention and anti-gang efforts, among other issues.

“James had a lot to do with helping us get together and sorting that out,” Price said.

Moab Charter School Board member Karisa Larsen said that she and others had plenty of qualified candidates to choose from, as they sorted through each application for the job.

“We had a pretty good pool,” she said.

But in the end, Larsen said, she and other board members sensed that Lewis’ experience as a teacher at small schools will be a tremendous asset to the charter school and its students.

“Every choice that he’s going to make as a director is just going to be kid-centered,” she said. “It’s all about the kids for him.”

Under his administration, Lewis said that the school will be committed to pursuing the best options for its students.

“That’s simple to say, but we strive for excellence,” he said.

Lewis – a former Oregonian and a graduate of Brigham Young University – said his interest in charter schools dates back years: He and his wife Toniee helped start a charter school in the Provo area, and they were recognized for their work at the time.

“We’ve always had a soft spot and a good feeling for charter schools, and what they’re able to do for students,” he said. “When (this) opportunity came up, we decided that it was time.”

Like many other charter school proponents, Lewis said he appreciates the smaller class sizes, which can help forge stronger ties between parents, teachers and kids. Enrollment in Moab Charter School’s first-grade class, for instance, currently stands at just 10 students.

“Who doesn’t want that type of environment for their kids?” he asked.

He also values charter schools for the strong sense of community and family feeling that they seem to inspire in proud parents.

“When we have (events), the parents are excited to come out and be part of their child’s education,” he said.

That’s not to say that parents of students at traditional public schools don’t feel the same way.

“But it seems to be a big part of charter schools,” he said.

Lewis and his wife have five children of their own – two of whom have already graduated from high school. The family recently bought a house in Blanding, so they don’t have any plans to sell it right away.

That means that Lewis is in for a long commute each day.

In good weather, he said, it’s about a 70-minute drive each way. Although he hopes to find temporary housing in or around Moab, he doesn’t mind the back-and-forth trip for the time being, since he and his family love to travel.

“We’re on the road a fair amount of time, but we enjoy that,” he said.

When they aren’t traveling, Toniee Lewis serves as the president of a board that administers federal school funding to largely Navajo schools in southern San Juan County.

“She’s very active in helping to secure quality education for Native American students,” he said.

She also performs freelance work, taking newspaper photos at sports events in San Juan County.

“You can usually find her on the sidelines at football games and basketball games,” he said.

Lewis shares her love of sports, whether he’s involved in activities with their family or running marathons by himself.

Although sports coaching isn’t an option at Moab Charter School, Lewis said he hopes to find other ways to participate in the community, after classes end for the day.

“We don’t have competitive sports at this level, but I would like to be involved in activities in the community, whether it’s throwing a ball, or other things,” he said.

Moab Charter School welcomes new director

Every choice that he’s going to make as a director is just going to be kid-centered … It’s all about the kids for him.

Moab Charter School currently has openings for a limited number of students. If parents are interested in learning more, they can contact the school directly at 435-259-2277.