Wahtonka Charter School has a new director, and a new direction.
Brian Goodwin, who opened the then-Wahtonka Community School in 2014 and led its conversion to a charter school last year, stepped down in May for health reasons. (See related story).
His replacement, Stacey Shaw, is pursuing a focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) as well as CTE (Career Technical Education).
She said she has refined the focus of the school, but has retained its project-based curriculum.
What that will mean in practice is that student projects will have “an anchor, so we’re not just picking any cool project, necessarily, but they’re more focused on those areas that students are required to get by the state of Oregon.”
“It helps to focus the students and the curriculum around the requirements to graduate,” she said.
By providing a focus on STEAM and CTE, she is hoping to partner with industry and create career avenues for students. “And it’s a niche that’s not filled by any educational institution in the Gorge right now.”
Shaw has her own background in STEAM, having served as the site coordinator for the Columbia Gorge Arts in Education STEM to STEAM Program as part of her work for North Wasco County School District 21.
She’s been a teacher and substitute teacher in the district since 2014 and previously worked as its English as a Second Language program coordinator.
She’s in her final year of getting her doctorate in educational leadership, and she said her studies have been ideal preparation for taking on leadership of the charter school. “It feels strangely meant to be,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it, however it’s the training I’ve been doing for the last two years.”
A new teacher at the Wahtonka Charter School, Jocelyn Paris, also comes with a STEM background, since she taught STEM for three years at the middle school. She most recently worked at Mosier Community School.
Paris has created STEM conferences and curricula, Shaw said.
With both her and Paris’s background in STEAM, “the combination of our experience, hers and mine,” plus a grant to upgrade technology, “everything made sense to focus on this area.”
She wants students to get involved in their career plan.
Shaw said she likes the idea of students going to four-year universities, “but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to create viable tracks for associates degrees.”
She said, “We have a diverse population in The Dalles and not every student wants to go to four-year college.”
The school has 46 students enrolled, and it is capped at 60.
While Goodwin also taught while he ran the school, Shaw said she will focus on organization management and leadership, rather than trying to teach and run a school at the same time.
The school has two teachers in addition to Shaw.
The school’s new existence as a charter school—it earned that designation last October—requires essentially building a new school. “It’s a start-up in a way, with some systems needing to be built for the first time.”
She said the two teachers at the charter school aren’t traditional classroom teachers, but rather, it’s “caseload management. Each student is learning on their own learning plan. It’s developed desk-side.”
Teachers need to create a plan for each student around the students’ interest, but also aligned to meet goals for graduation.
She said students at the school get regular high school diplomas, not modified diplomas, unless they are on a specific plan for a modified diploma.
To keep students focused on the thousands of hours of education they need to graduate, she plans to give each student a binder with the graduation requirements laminated on the front, with weekly updates on their progress toward getting the needed hours.
“We want to make sure that all of our students are successful about meeting those graduation requirements,” she said.
She does do some case management for a few students who may need very specific supports, “or they’re cases that with my teaching background I can develop lessons that the other teachers can’t do quite as easily.”
Shaw’s early teaching background was in working with English learners. She most recently has been working as a substitute teacher for the district and as a professor, teaching other K12 teachers for Heritage Institute.
She said coming up with intriguing projects is hard. “It’s hard even for adults,” she said. Imagine going up to someone and say, “tell me five things you’re interested in. It’s difficult. It’s difficult for anyone.”
Students work on six projects at a time for a six-week period, and then they move on to the next set of projects.
She said, “You really have to actively make sure that there is an appropriate academic component and make sure that it actually falls into the categories that they need to graduate.
“It takes a very skilled teacher to embed learning standards in those kinds of projects.”
STEAM jobs are estimated to grow faster than non-STEAM jobs, but tech employers—particularly in the Gorge—are reporting difficulty finding qualified employees.
Meanwhile, CTE courses, which can prepare students to enter the trades, give students real-world skills and practical knowledge.
Over 75 percent of students taking a concentration of CTE courses in high school go on to postsecondary education after graduating from high school.
CTE courses also help fill employment gaps, since there is also a significant shortage of employees with the needed skills in CTE fields.
She said the change may make for a bit of a short bumpy period. “Changes can be challenging,” she said. But she added, “The staff is excited; I’m excited.”