Building Community: Discovery High School students have unique back-to-school experience

Schoolwide, mixed-grade project to form new, student-led clubs helps Camas teens bond after year of remote, hybrid learning

Discovery High School students present a video pitching their idea for a student art club on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Discovery High School students present a video describing their plans to start a student billiards club on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Following an 18-month stretch of shuttered school buildings, remote learning, hybrid classes, mask mandates and canceled sports seasons, the start of the 2021-22 school year was never going to be completely “normal” for Camas-Washougal students.

With that in mind, staff at Discovery High School decided to use those first couple weeks of the new school year to shake things up and, they hoped, help students bond with their peers.

Instead of heading straight to their classrooms on the first few days of school, Discovery students came together for a mixed-grade, schoolwide project that emphasized students’ interests and unique skills by allowing them to form student clubs that will meet throughout the school year, during the students’ regular school days.

“In addition to creating a sense of belonging and community as we return to school during the pandemic, we are also emphasizing and evaluating collaboration, communication and craftsmanship,” explained Discovery Principal Aaron Smith. “Our kids are very engaged in the process.”

Discovery High science teacher Corinne Lorch said the school’s leadership team knew students would have a greater need to become part of a school community after so many months in remote and hybrid learning. The trick was figuring out how students could use project based learning and design — the core tenet of Camas’ newest high school — to build community, strengthen connections to one another and create new traditions.

The answer? Coming together for the first seven days of school to brainstorm ideas for student clubs, find other interested members and then pitch the idea to school administrators.

“To start, we had students reflect and share about their interests, strengths, areas of growth and more,” Lorch said.

Students came together into groups bound together by a love of sports, gaming, art and other interests.

“These groups then collaborated to see how to transition these passions and common interests into a club idea. After an initial club fair at the end of the first week, clubs were solidified,” Lorch explained.

After the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend, Discovery students returned for the second week of the schoolwide project, figuring out how their clubs might contribute to the overall school community and creating short pitch videos to show to Smith — or to the school’s student leadership team if students wanted to become an official Associated Student Body supported club — on the final day of the project.

On the final day of the project, Sept. 10, students pitched their club ideas to Smith, selling the principal on everything from a rock-climbing club that would utilize the school’s existing rock-climbing wall and a billiards club that hoped to give Discovery High students a chance to learn a new skill while making new friends, to a game-development club that had attracted a group of freshmen eager to share their knowledge of open-source gaming software, and an art club with plans to share needed art supplies and maybe even create an art project based on the school’s phoenix mascot.

Smith said this was the first time Discovery High has done a special schedule for a mixed-grade, schoolwide project of this magnitude. This is the first year Discovery High, which opened its doors with a freshman class in 2018 and has added a new class every year since then, has had a full complement of students in grades nine through 12.

“Collectively, the project was a success,” Lorch said. “Students have demonstrated collaboration, communication and craftsmanship within the development of each component — pillars of Discover High’s project based learning program. I personally witnessed a mixed-grade level team work on five separate devices to perfect a presentation together, a demonstration of the type of collaboration skills specifically embedded and explicitly taught through the process.”

Smith added that school leaders hope the project has given Discovery students a better “sense of belonging and community” following 18 months of remote and hybrid learning.