Construction is in full swing at Camas’ newest high school, with crews working through the cold January rains to prepare the Discovery High building for its fall of 2018 opening.
From his vantage point atop nearby Odyssey Middle School’s roof, Odyssey Principal Aaron Smith can pick out his favorite features on the partially constructed high school. He points to the future gymnasium, where a series of stepping-stone structures, designed to let in as much natural light as possible, stand waiting for their floor-to-ceiling windows, and says the facade on this part of the school will eventually be encased in rustic-looking steel to pay homage to Camas’ working class, paper mill roots. Other outside walls will have a minimalist, more modern design — a nod to the 21st century high school and the area’s high-tech industries.
Smith has a vested interest in the construction. Next year, he’ll be principal of both Odyssey Middle and Discovery High. He says he’s thrilled to see the new school go from concept to reality.
“When I grew up, I wanted to be an architect. So, I’ve enjoyed working with the focus groups and the architects and coming up with a vision for how it will look,” Smith says.
The new school is being built using money from the $119.7 million bond voters passed in February of 2016 to help Camas accommodate its growing student population. District leaders have been keeping close watch on the building’s progress, posting regular construction updates on the Camas School District’s website and giving monthly progress reports to the Camas School Board.
Now, school leaders will focus on another aspect of opening a new high school: Actually filling the building with students and staff.
Smith begins the hunt for new teachers next month, and student forecasting for 2018-19 classes also starts in February.
The district will host a series of high school information events, designed to give students and families a better understanding of what all three of the district’s high schools — the traditional Camas High, the smaller Hayes Freedom High School and the project-based learning Discovery — have to offer.
Discovery will accept 150 freshman and 75 sophomores for the 2018-19 school year. Eventually, the school will accommodate 600 students in grades 9-12. Smith says filling the lower grades will be an easier sell for Discovery’s first year, since most families and students would probably balk at the idea of trading schools halfway through their high school career.
Plus, the district still needs to educate students and parents about the new high school and its project-based learning (PBL) focus. Many families in the Camas district might already be familiar with PBL through the Odyssey Middle School program, but some might question turning their back on the highly regarded Camas High School in favor of an unknown.
Smith says he hopes families aren’t so quick to dismiss the value of PBL.
“This is deep, meaningful learning,” he says of the education model that emphasizes the type of collaborative, group learning and finessed communication skills today’s employers are looking for. “A lot of schools are still based on the industrial model, where students leave high school and go into a trade or a career they’ll be at until they retire. That’s just not the world we live in anymore.”
At Discovery, students will learn in an atmosphere more akin to the real life world.
“Employers are looking for more than someone who can memorize content,” Smith says. “They want someone who works well with other people and who can communicate effortlessly.”
That’s not to say that other high schools aren’t teaching these types of skills, Smith adds. In fact, many teachers are beginning to incorporate PBL’s emphasis on collaboration and communication within their own classes. The difference is the extent to which PBL infuses every aspect of Camas’ new high school. At Discovery, students will work in cohorts of 75 with a team of teachers. They’ll have access to fabrication labs, a media center, amphitheater, flexible spaces that allow for a wide range of learning environments and a team of teachers who encourage students to take the reins and really shape their own educational experience.
Derek Jaques, the district’s director of career and technical education, has worked in a variety of academic focused high schools, including Corbett High in Oregon, which consistently makes national lists of the top high schools in the country; West Linn High in Oregon and Camas High.
When he looks at a program like Discovery High, Jaques becomes excited about the school’s ability to really engage teenage students.
He points to studies that show many high achieving students never graduate from college and that students’ engagement with school tends to drop over time, going from a high in elementary school to lower levels in middle and high school.
“Our goal is to change that,” Smith says of building engagement within the upper grades.
But that means teachers and schools need to connect curriculum with the real world, Jaques says.
“Many students, even those who have a 3.75 GPA or higher and are taking AP classes, can’t wrap their minds around “Why is this content important?'” Jaques says.
Discovery, with its PBL mindset, is all about connecting learning to how it applies in the real world and in students’ future careers. In fact, Smith is already planning to have professionals come in to work with the high-schoolers and have Discovery students work to solve real-world problems.
The new school may be smaller than Camas High, but that doesn’t mean students will be lacking that “high school experience.” Discovery will not have its own athletics program. Instead, Discovery athletes will compete on Camas High teams. For students who want to take advanced placement (AP) classes and get a headstart on college, the school will offer all students — even freshmen — the opportunity to take AP exams and qualify for college credit.
Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell says Discovery is adding to what the district offers to high school students and their families.
“We have been fortunate in Camas to have two fantastic options in Camas High School and Hayes Freedom High School for many years,” Snell said. “Adding Discovery High School expands the options for our students.”
Graduating from any of the districts three high schools will “open the door to whatever pathway a student would like to pursue,” Snell said. The choice really comes down to how students want to learn.
“At Discovery … we are creating a new learning environment,” Snell explained. “It is an environment focused on authentic application of learning where students regularly interact with the world around them. It is an environment where students will work in integrated teams developing problem solving and collaborative skills alongside of rigorous academics. It’s an environment where student learning will contribute to the greater community. We are so excited to welcome our first students to Discovery High School.”
The district will host a series of community meetings for students and families wishing to learn more about their high school options in the 2018-19 school year.
The first two meetings will focus on all three high schools, while the final two will be specific to Discovery High.
The first meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Skyridge Middle School, 5220 N.W. Parker St, Camas. The second will take place at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Liberty Middle School, 1612 N.E. Garfield St., Camas. On Thursday, Feb. 22, at 9 a.m. and again at 6:30 p.m., there will be a Discovery High specific meeting at Odyssey Middle School, 5750 N.W. Pacific Rim Blvd., Camas.
The district will send more information to Camas School District families in early February. The deadline to apply to Discovery High is March 9. If the school has more interest than spots available — the case at the district’s other PBL school, Odyssey Middle — district leaders will implement a lottery system for Camas School District students. If there is not enough interest, the district could open the school to out-of-district students. For more information, visit www.camas.wednet.edu.