Aaron Smith, the Odyssey Middle School principal who helped guide the Camas School District through the sometimes complicated ins-and-outs of project based learning (PBL) since 2015, has been named the new principal of the district’s newest PBL school, Discovery High School, which opens next fall.
“Mr. Smith was a distinguished principal at Skyridge Middle School,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told The Post-Record. “His experience in the design process and passion for thinking differently about the way we engage secondary students made him perfect for the planning principal. He served in that role the past year and a half, and then was selected as the principal last month.”
Smith was a part of the original visioning and design teams that started work for the project based learning schools back in 2015, Snell said.
Smith will remain at Odyssey and lead both PBL schools next year.
“It’s very exciting and humbling to have the opportunity to head both of the project based learning schools,” Smith said.” I appreciate the leadership of our district, school board and community to create options for students.”
Smith added that the theories that make project based learning so effective are also the types of things that engaged him when he was young.
“I’ve always been an outside of the box thinker and was a relatively unengaged student, particularly in high school,” he said. “I always appreciated opportunities to create and work with other people, take things apart, put things together — and anything really that was social, creative and collaborative — that’s when I became engaged as a student. So I’m excited to help bring that to the kids of Camas.”
There are aspects of project based learning happening at all of the schools in the district, state and nation, Smith recently pointed out, but he said Odyssey and Discovery take a deep dive into PBL and that’s a journey Smith is looking forward to leading.
Lara Blair, a sixth grade teacher at Odyssey, said the school’s staff adores Smith and that he makes an excellent choice for the new Discovery High principal.
“He gives us the guidance we need but he gives us the freedom to create the magic for our kids,” Blair said of Smith.
A career in education began to buzz in Smith’s mind when he was in high school in Lynden, Washington, near the Canadian border. The mix of having influential teachers and coming from a family of educators — Smith’s father served for nearly 20 years on the Lynden School Board — led Smith into a high school career that included music, arts and active involvement in his school’s student government.
Being a part of his school’s student government meant that Smith had the opportunity to attend leadership camps, such as the one hosted by the Association of Washington School Principals at Mount Cispus before his senior year in high school.
“That was an influential experience in terms of being a positive leader, and the impact that you could have on the culture of a school,” Smith said.
After high school, Smith went on to study music at Washington State University and has since continued to diversify his knowledge over his 20-year career in education.
Smith was an assistant principal in Blaine, Washington, and has taught music in Bellingham, Washington and Conway, Washington. He also has traveled overseas to Athens, Greece, where he taught students from more than 50 different nations and nationalities before coming to Camas.
Smith said that being able to experience such a diverse group of students in Athens has made him who he is as an educator, and that it’s something he will always appreciate.
“I think I’ve had a good spectrum of opportunities that gives me a good perspective, all of our experiences make us who we are,” Smith said
Throughout his music teaching career, Smith worked with mostly middle school students, but also had the chance to teach elementary and high school students.
“That gives me a healthy perspective on developmental stages and on systems as a whole,” he said.
Before leading the project based learning schools in Camas, Smith was the principal of Skyridge Middle School from 2009 to 2016.
“Ultimately, it’s about service, trying to make school a safe, positive and engaging place for kids and staff,” he says. “It’s a real challenge and honor, and I strongly believe in public service and I see this as being a great way to do that.”
Discovery to open in fall of 2018
The new Discovery High School is being built east of Odyssey Middle School on the same piece of former Sharp Labs property.
The building includes spaces the size of three typical classrooms, which can be turned into a traditional room, when needed.
The fabrication lab, also known as the FAB lab, is a huge piece of the new building, Smith said. This is a diverse makerspace that is designed for digital fabrication, design, metalworking, woodworking and textile work.
“I think it’s going to be a really motivating, strong, core piece of our program to help kids dreams become a physical reality,” Smith said.
The freshmen and sophomores will be housed on the east side of the building, while the juniors and seniors will be on the school’s west side, with a large common area in the middle of the school.
“We really want it to be flexible, to adapt to student interest and their learning styles, so they will be able to adapt their own area to be group or individual work areas,” Smith said. “If the building needs to shift (to) a more traditional school set up in the future, the building will be able to respond to that as well.”
Smith said that he thinks everybody from the different communities, focus areas and architects have worked together to create an inspiring space for kids to blossom.
The district’s goal is to have 120 freshmen and 60 sophomores in the building for its first year. The second year will include juniors. Seniors will be added during the third year.
If the school receives more interest forms than there are spots for the high school then students will be entered into a “lottery” process to be selected randomly, Smith said.
“If Odyssey Middle School is any indication of the level of interest, I do anticipate that we will use the lottery in our first year,” he added.
The outgoing Odyssey students will have a spot in the high school, but each will need to fill out an interest form for the school. Once those spots are filled, if there are too many applicants, a lottery will begin.
Smith has been working with Hayes Freedom High School and Camas High School weekly fo talk about how they will carry out the enrollment process to ensure that all Camas students have an opportunity to decide if they want to attend Discovery.
He added that, while he thinks interest in the new school is high, that community members may have questions about college readiness and credits.
Smith and the staff at Odyssey have looked at what High Tech High, a project based learning school in California, has done with its schools and have even visited locations to develop their own impressions of how other schools run their PBL classrooms.
At Odyssey, Smith has seen a diverse range of students thrive in the PBL environment. He said the middle school has students who are identified as highly capable, talented and gifted, as well as students who have learning disabilities.
“We have a wide spectrum, and I think that’s one of the greatest benefits of project based learning because engagement really increases dramatically,” Smith said.
Odyssey continues to grow
Now in its second year, Odyssey Middle School has added eighth-graders to the mix and has grown from 112 students in its first year to now having 224 sixth- through eighth-graders.
Smith said the first year at Odyssey, during the 2016-17 school year, was pretty special.
“How often do you get a chance to be in a school with 112 kids in this big, new, cool interesting facility, and starting a new program?” Smith said.
Since the school doubled in size, Smith said his staff has been trying to make sure they’re maintaining a culture that is inviting and close-knit.
Every morning, the Odyssey students arrive and take part in strong circles, a mixed-age group circle lead by staff members, so that they’ll have an opportunity to bond and review their group collaboration and communication skills.
Robert Mattson, an eighth grade humanities teacher at Odyssey, said he doesn’t know if he could ever go back to teaching at a traditional school.
“I like that I’m with the kids more throughout the day than in a traditional middle school,” Mattson said. “Here, I’m with them from when they get here until they leave, and it gives me more opportunity to interact and get to know the kids and learn … who they are.”
Tiffany Morrisey, a seventh grade teacher at Odyssey, taught at a traditional school for 12 years.
“It’s really challenging at Odyssey, but in a good way,” Morrisey said. “It’s good for the kids to have their brain challenged and break out of the monotony.”