Discovery High students react to district’s budget cuts

CSD to unify online Camas Connect Academy with project-based learning high school, create new principal position

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Discovery High School students (from left to right) Jax Goetzen, Angel Harp, Zimri Baxter and Hannah Cuffel-Leathers gather at a booth on the corner of Northeast Fourth Avenue and Northeast Cedar Street in downtown Camas during the Downtown Camas Association's First Friday event on April 7, 2023. The students are calling for the Camas School District to reconsider budget cuts that will impact their project-based learning high school. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas School District leaders sounded the alarm in 2022, and tried to warn the community that the district’s lower enrollment rates, combined with less money from the state, would force budget cuts in 2023-24, but the news still came as a shock for those most affected by the district’s $6 million cuts.

“I knew the budget situation was serious, but I was surprised by the impact on our campus,” Aaron Smith, the principal of Camas’ project-based learning campus, which includes Odyssey Middle School and Discovery High School, told The Post-Record this week. “I was not anticipating the impact on the principalship here.”

Smith is referring to the district’s decision to combine its newest school, the online K-12 Camas Connect Academy, with the 5-year-old Discovery High School and to give “reduction in force” notices to Smith as well as Dan Huld, the principal at CCA, before advertising for a new principal position that will oversee all three schools: Odyssey Middle, Discovery High and the mostly remote CCA school, which will utilize Discovery High space for its staff members and in-person meetings with students.

Camas School District Superintendent John Anzalone said this week that the district’s “unification” of the PBL campus and CCA made sense financially and physically.

“When we first started looking at the dollar amount we had to get to (for the $6 million worth of budget reductions), we knew there would have to be some sort of consolidation of our smaller schools,” Anzalone said.

Although district leaders had considered unifying CCA with Hayes Freedom High, Camas’ other “choice high school,” Anzalone said an outpouring of concerns from Hayes students, staff and families made district leaders consider other options.

Not only has CCA already been operating out of Odyssey Middle School, giving its students and staff a chance to mingle with teachers and students at the project-based learning campus, but the new Discovery High School, which opened in 2018-19 with a freshman-only class and celebrated its first graduating class of seniors in 2022, still had room to accommodate the CCA staff and occasional in-person student activities.

“Discovery has the space right now to offer unification a bit better than Hayes would have,” Anzalone said. “Hayes is really full as far as classroom space goes, but Discovery has space for (CCA) staff and students.”

District leaders also thought Discovery High, with its emphasis on real-life projects, hands-on learning and collaboration, would be a better fit for the independent CCA students.

“We were looking at what would be a better fit for the students,” Anzalone said. “At Hayes, the typical student does really well with one-on-one, smaller group learning. But with Discovery, we believe students might benefit from having an online component (available).”

Anzalone said he is not yet sure if there will be any crossover between the two schools — CCA and Discovery — but that unifying the two schools opens up that possibility.

Another factor was how much each of the district’s high schools was spending per pupil.

Doreen McKercher, the Camas School District’s communications director, said per-pupil spending at Discovery High ($18,135) is “significantly higher” than the per-pupil spending at Camas High School ($12,284) or Hayes Freedom High School ($14,494).

Anzalone explained that part of the reason for the per-pupil costs is that Camas School District leaders had decided to over-staff Discovery High in anticipation of the high school’s ramping-up years, when Discovery was adding a grade level every year. Unfortunately, the school only had one full year of classes before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted schools across the nation.

“The growth rate at Discovery hasn’t been as robust as expected, but without budget cuts, we probably would have kept staffing intact,” Anzalone said. “As the school grows, we can add back staffing. And, with CCA primarily being an online school, that brings us some flexibility so that, as Discovery grows, we can shift as needed.”

PBL principal position eliminated; students react

Smith, a former Skyridge Middle School principal who was instrumental in establishing a project-based learning campus in Camas, has led Odyssey Middle School since its inception in 2016. In 2018, Smith also took on the responsibility of leading Discovery High School.

When he heard about the district’s decision to unify CCA and the PBL campus and hire a principal to oversee all three schools, Smith said he could not fathom stretching himself that thin.

In a letter he wrote to Odyssey and Discovery staff and families in late March, Smith said he would not be applying for the new principal position.

“After opening Odyssey and Discovery and the continued work to grow and evolve our innovative program, I simply don’t have the passion or capacity to add a new K-12 online program to my current responsibilities,” Smith wrote. “It isn’t a tenable situation for me.”

The longtime Camas principal said he understood the difficult position facing the district’s superintendent and school board officials.

“I do empathize with the school board and Dr. Anzalone when it comes to the choices they are facing,” Smith wrote. “I have always and will continue to be grateful and proud of the Camas School District for adding additional engaging choices for our students. It truly is remarkable. Please know that I will continue to be a vocal advocate for our students and program and will continue to serve to the best of my ability — no matter how much longer my tenure continues.”

Along with the reduction in administration, the PBL schools are facing the possibility of losing teachers and perhaps one of three school counselors.

“We will need to reduce some additional teaching positions,” Smith told families in his letter. “Some may not be filled while others may be filled with staff from other schools. This process is codified in the Camas Education Association bargaining agreement.

Anzalone and McKercher said the district’s bargaining agreement with its teacher’s union has a tiered approach that looks first at how many years of Washington state teaching experience a teacher has before considering Camas-specific or out-of-state teaching experience. Administrators could not take into consideration factors such as a teacher’s knowledge of project-based learning during the budget reduction process, McKercher added.

The unification plans — along with the loss of their principal and perhaps several of their teachers — has upset many Discovery High students.

Dozens of Discovery students participated in a planned walk-out the day before students went on their spring break earlier this month, to protest the district’s plans.

“Students aren’t feeling good about this,” said Hannah Cuffel, 16, Discovery High’s sophomore class president. “We’re losing our principal … and we can’t think of anyone else who could run this school. (Aaron Smith is) just an amazing person.”

On Friday, April 7, Cuffel and three other Discovery High students — junior Jax Goertzen, 16; freshman Zimry Baxter, 14; and junior Angel Harp, 16 — gathered at a booth near the Camas Hotel during the Downtown Camas Association’s popular First Friday event. They handed out literature asking people to “protect PBL” and said they wanted to make sure students would play a role in the district’s hiring of the next PBL/CCA principal. The students also said they worried about losing educators who were well-versed in the project-based learning philosophy.

“It is just such a different style of learning,” Harp said, “and our teachers are the foundation of our school.” The students said they would love to see Smith stay on as the principal of Odyssey, Discovery and CCA, but that — barring what Smith has said is not in the cards for his future — they also would not mind Huld, the current principal of CCA, running the unified campus.

“We would love to see Mr. Smith stay, but if he cannot, Dr. Huld would be about as close as we could get,” Harp said.

Anzalone said he understands the students’ concerns and empathizes with their worries.

“We have tried to make it clear to (Smith) that he is welcome to apply for this position, but he has been really clear that it’s not something he is interested in doing,” Anzalone said. “We also want to make sure we get the right person in there.”

Anzalone said he wants to “give people time to catch their breath” after the budget cut announcements, but plans to advertise the new principal position “within the next month.”

The superintendent said he feels the principal search should be “robust” with plenty of involvement from the community, staff and students.

Anzalone said he also wants students and families — as well as the greater Camas community — to know the district remains invested in its PBL schools.

“I would hope the community will trust that we are very committed to (our PBL schools),” Anzalone said this week. “I want to dispel any rumors that we are targeting (Discovery High) in any way. My team and I firmly believe in the project-based learning model, and even though this is a really difficult time, we hope these decisions will only help the school grow and improve.”