Kaleidoscope Community School Director Molly Brown (left) and Ashley Acers, the school's owner, stand outside of a yurt assembled at the school. The school had ordered four yurts to help it expand. But thieves had other plans. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Somewhere, there is someone with thousands of square feet of yurt coverings. In Salem, there is a school that badly wants them back.

The yurts, round tents constructed with poles and felt coverings that have been used for centuries by nomadic people of central Asia, were intended to expand the growing Kaleidoscope Community School. Ashley Acers founded the school in 2015 with just two preschoolers in a classroom inside the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem, and has watched it grow.

Two years ago, Kaleidoscope started looking for new space for all the families that wanted to sign up and to accommodate programs for kids 6 through 9. A neighbor offered an unused patch of pasture for the school’s expansion, said Acers. The school considered using old railroad cars or portable classrooms, which were too expensive at $250,000.

A parent suggested using yurts.

At first, Acers dismissed the idea. But she realized the yurts were insulated, more economical and their layout would work for classrooms where students, ranging from ages 6 to 9, work collaboratively and aren’t organized by grade.

“You know, we're kind of a hippie school anyway,” said Acers. Students at the school practice yoga, care for Dotty (a spoiled Kunekune Juliana mix pig), tend to the garden and pursue their own learning interests that include bullet trains and Roman numerals.

After ordering four traditional yurts, students and parents waited months as they were shipped all the way from Mongolia, said Acers. In January, they finally arrived.

But Acers said the contractor hired to assemble the yurts showed up at the school one morning with some bad news: three of the coverings had been stolen. He had left each of the coverings, about 700 square feet each, in big purple bags in a covered and locked trailer outside his house. Overnight, someone had pulled the trailer away.

“They basically stole our school,” she said.

Luckily, one of the yurts had already been assembled at the school and the metal poles and scaffolding for the other three weren’t in the trailer, she said. But replacing the coverings for the three stolen yurts will cost $20,000.

They’ve reported the theft to police. While they wait for tips, the school has set up a fundraiser to recover the costs.

Acers and Molly Brown, the school’s director, think that whoever stole the trailers were expecting to find tools or other valuables. The thieves were likely surprised when they discovered yurt coverings, which are decorated with ornate patterns and images of camels and yaks, along with assembly instructions in Chinese, they said 

“They probably don’t even know what they are,” said Brown.

Brown said she called the garbage company to be on the lookout. They’ve also been trying to get the word out in hopes someone will find them dumped in their field. The school would also be happy if someone dropped them off in the parking lot — no questions asked.

While schools have been closed because of pandemic restrictions, Kaleidoscope Community School is still open for parents who are essential workers with children in preschool, kindergarten and primary school. Acers said that it currently has about 40 kids, and the yurts would have been used to accommodate a kindergarten class and other families on its waiting list.

Brown said the kids were so excited when the yurts arrived. They helped paint the boards for its floor and arranged its layout inside.

Inside the remaining yurt, the walls are lined with shelves of books, educational posters of the multiplication table and a dry erase board. The cohort of 10 kids sat at tables busy working on math worksheets.

“I like there is a sunroof, so we can see the sun,” exclaimed Maya Backer, 7. 

Jack Snyder, 7, chimed in that it was quieter than a normal classroom and a picture of a fox he drew is hanging from the wall.

Acers said it’s been difficult to explain the theft to the children who don’t understand why they’re hard to replace. But she still teaches the kids not to judge whoever took it.

“Because everybody has a story,” she said.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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