WHS Excelsior programs prove successful for at-risk youth

After transition from alternative high school to Washougal High program, Excelsior shows positive results

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Freshman Academy students engage in a learning activity on June 1 at Washougal High School (WHS). The academy, designed to ensure a smooth transition to ninth grade, is one of the core offerings of WHS' Excelsior program. (Contributed photos by Rene Carroll, courtesy of Washougal School District)

Isaac James knew he was falling behind in school, but his motivation was lacking.

At the start of the 2017-18 school year, James, then a junior at Washougal High School, wasn’t sure if he’d even graduate.

“I was definitely nervous,” James said. “My credits were not looking good. I was struggling. I just didn’t (understand) some of the subjects, and I wasn’t coming to school. I thought maybe I wouldn’t make it.”

Everything changed for James, however, after he enrolled in “On-Track,” one of the core offerings of Washougal High’s Excelsior program.

On-Track’s teachers helped him finish the classes that he needed to finish and come up with a solid plan for his post-graduation future.

Just two years ago, James had a hard time envisioning himself standing on a podium at Fishback Stadium, donning a gown and mortarboard, receiving his high school diploma. On June 8, that scenario will become reality.

“I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in right now,” he said, “if it wasn’t for this program.”

James’ story is a good example of the success that Washougal High administrators want to see from the Excelsior program, which provides services for students who prefer alternative learning styles or environments, or are at risk of not graduating.

Washougal High associate principal Mark Castle, who oversees Excelsior, told the Washougal School District’s school board in May that the program is producing positive results.

“For some students, being in a larger, busier place causes anxiety,” he said. “In Excelsior we have smaller classrooms, small class sizes, and the students like the personal, welcoming connection. We try to create an environment for any student to feel comfortable. We use a team approach to make sure the kids have the support they need to be successful.”

In addition to the On-Track and Freshman Academy programs, which have about 90 students combined this school year, the Excelsior building hosts the high school’s culinary program as well as Advance Via Individual Determination (AVID) and pre-Advanced Placement algebra classes.

Excelsior program succeeding after changes

The Excelsior program has undergone some significant changes recently.

For several years, Excelsior High School delivered alternative high school instruction in portable classrooms on the Washough High campus.

As part of a $57 million capital improvement bond approved by voters in February 2015, a new facility for Excelsior was constructed on the site of the portables, opening in September 2017.

Washougal district administrators decided to retire the Excelsior High School name, change the school’s offerings from alternative instruction to general education and make the former Excelsior facility part of the main Washougal High campus.

Those decisions caused some confusion among parents and community members, Castle said.

“I think people were concerned when it changed from (alternative instruction) that we weren’t meeting the needs for students who were struggling in a traditional high school setting. Some people were upset,” Castle said. “Part of that was because they weren’t real sure what was going on.”

To answer those concerns, Castle can point to Excelsior’s recent success rates.

The Freshman Academy, designed to facilitate a smooth transition to ninth grade, has a 98-percent pass rate for the past two school years, a figure that is “unusually high,” according to Castle. On-Track helped 10 at-risk seniors graduate this school year, Castle said, with five at-risk juniors projected to graduate next school year.

“The Freshman Academy students are building skills and systems that they can use to be successful in all of their classes,” he said. “On-Track is getting kids to the finish line and giving them better skill sets. We’re meeting the needs of a broad group of students. We’re not leaving anyone out.”

Castle said that he would like to expand Excelsior’s offering of online classes, work with local businesses to create internship opportunities and possibly reintroduce some alternative instruction programs over the next two years.

Program puts at-risk students on track for success

On-Track teachers work with credit-deficient juniors and seniors like James to develop personalized pathways to graduation and beyond.

“(When I was struggling), I had a dragging-down feeling. I just didn’t want to do anything, and I thought school was kind of boring,” James said. “My confidence has definitely (increased) a ton. The program put a goal in front of me to reach and opened my mind to thinking about what I want to do in the future.”

Each student has a dedicated educational coach to help with credit recovery and skill building by connecting the student’s personal interests to learning material during the last three periods of the school day.

“The teachers are always saying, ‘You got this,’ even when I wasn’t sure,” James said. “They are always pushing you. I could tell that they wanted me to succeed. (After I enrolled in the program), something clicked. I was like, ‘Dang, this is my last stretch, and I have to buckle down and do this.’ It’s been an eye-opening experience.”

James said that he’ll enroll in a trade school after graduating to seek an apprenticeship as an electrician.

Academy ensures smooth transition for new high-schoolers

Brooke Jordan came to the Washougal School District in the fall of 2018 and enrolled in the Freshman Academy, which has helped her acclimate to the public school system.

“My mom wanted me to (receive) specialized and project-based learning because that’s what I did when I was homeschooled,” Jordan said. “I was really nervous about the school, the homework, whether it’d be too difficult or too easy, but I was excited to start because I’d never done something like this before.”

Academy students have classes during the first three periods of the day in flexible blocks of time and smaller learning communities that allow for individual and group instruction.

The program is designed around project-based learning of core academic skills through a team-teaching interdisciplinary approach, according to the Washougal High website. Through this process students build communication, collaboration and research skills.

“It prepares you more for sophomore year instead of just focusing on your freshman year. It helps you learn what to expect,” Jordan said. “The teachers and students are nice, and I’ve worried less about the classes, (which) aren’t as difficult because of the way that they’re taught. This has been the perfect program for me. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a lot of fun.”