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Year-round alternative school eyed

The term “alternative ed” might not often come up in daily conversation, but it’s a subject area that has seen more recent coverage at the latest North Wasco County School District board meetings.

Brian Goodwin, program director of the North Wasco County School District’s special programs and federal grants, said at the Nov. 21 board meeting that multiple smaller grants have been identified as a means through which a proposed alternative high school could potentially be funded. In his report, Goodwin said the goal is to form an alternative school for grades nine through 12 with a total enrollment of about 40 to 55 students in time for the 2014-15 academic year.

“The plan as of right now,” Goodwin said, “is to start small and go from there.”

One of the more surprising aspects of the proposed school is that it would also function as a year-round educational institution.

“Statistics tell us that students that are from middle and upper income homes tend to do just fine during the summer months,” Goodwin told the board. “However, students coming from minority or poverty-stricken communities usually experience a ‘summer slide.’ The numbers also show that during the school year, these kids grow at the same rate as those with access to more privileges. In other words, the research says that if these students remain in school, they’re going to perform better all around.”

Goodwin cited this information as one of the most “compelling reasons to go full-year.” Under this type of system, students would attend school 180 days out of the year, the same number as those attending public schools operating on a regular schedule. The only difference being that full-year students could expect more frequent vacations and would attend school for four days a week instead of five.

One example of the alternative curriculum Goodwin hopes to incorporate into the new school is an agricultural unit taking place during the summer months.

“Our goal is to create a program that’s very rooted in the place of The Dalles, in our people and our history as well as in real-world applications. We hope to offer everything from lessons in welding and working with irrigation to how to run a small business to computer modeling—basically any direction students want to take their education.”

Staffing for the school, Goodwin said, would be minimal. Including himself, he estimated that one other teacher would need to be hired along with one assistant and a full-time secretary.

“Right now we’re in the process of tailoring specific curriculum to common core standards and aligning them with our project-based education models,” he said.

“We want it to be a rigorous school, and the current goal is to have it all set up and ready to go by July 1 of the coming year.”

Vice chair of the board Carol Roderick said she thought the kind of program Goodwin is proposing could potentially “catch a lot of kids that fall through the cracks [in the current education system] and go a long way towards keeping them interested and in school.”

Upon the conclusion of Goodwin’s presentation, board member Eric Nerdin asked why middle school grades are not among those being included in the plans for the new school.

“We simply couldn’t have our plans negatively impact the district budget,” Goodwin said. “Great projects have come out of the Endeavor program we initiated last year, so this is kind of a test bet with project-based learning involving members of the local community.”

Goodwin said that in recent conversations with district Operations Director Dennis Whitehouse, he had expressed interest in using six classrooms located at the Wahtonka High School as well as the campus weight room to house the program.

While the process by which students could apply to be enrolled in the new school has not yet been decided, Goodwin said he did not expect there to be “any challenge to filling it; in fact, I think there will probably be more interested than we’ll actually be able to take on.”

“While utilizing this building (Wahtonka High School) more fully is already on the board’s radar,” Nerdin said, “I think an important question to ask is whether putting this school at Wahtonka could potentially limit us in using the space for other things.”

In previous meetings, the board had discussed the possibility of using Wahtonka High School to create space for a new K-8.

“I’m just hesitant to go forward with something when we have other things we haven’t quite figured out how to resolve yet,” Nerdin said.

However, Goodwin assured the board that both he and the proposed program could “operate out of anywhere,” and that while Wahtonka High School appeared to be the best place to house the new school, the current plan could still work if changing its location became necessary.

“If we don’t start taking a risk once in a while, we’re going to be stuck doing the same thing we’ve always done and won’t be progressing with the rest of the world,” Roderick said. “This could be a whole new way to facilitate outreach to our community; we’re losing out and this is a way to start pulling everyone back in.”

After some deliberation, the board reached consensus and approved the concept to move forward, with Goodwin continuing to issue regular updates on the program’s development in the coming months.

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