Camas School Board hears update on district’s ‘choice schools’

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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)

It has been nine months since Camas students, staff and families flooded Camas School Board meetings in the spring of 2023 to support their unique “choice schools” in the wake of the district’s announced budget cuts and Discovery High School students participated in a planned walk-out the day before their 2022-23 spring break to protest the district’s plan to unify the project-based learning Discover High with the remote K-12 Camas Connect Academy (CCA).

This week, Camas School Board members heard how those choice schools — which include CCA, Discovery, Hayes Freedom High School and the project-based learning (PBL) Odyssey Middle School — are fairing during the 2023-24 school year.

“Choice schools are a vital part of (the school district) that allow us to truly see and serve each student,” Derek Jaques, the school district’s K-12 program administrator, told Camas School Board members during a Board workshop on Monday, Jan. 8.

Jaques said roughly one in five Camas School District high school students currently attend one of the district’s three choice high schools.

“There is definitely a large amount of interest in students accessing programs they feel fit them best,” Jaques said, adding that his research shows Camas’ choice schools are doing a great job when it comes to what is known in education as “MTSS” or multi-tiered system of supports that, according to the Center for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, “integrate data and instruction to maximize student achievement and support students’ social, emotional and behavior needs from a strengths-based perspective.”

“We are doing tremendous MTSS work and have been for a long time at Hayes and our PBL campus,” Jaques told the school board Monday. “(The choice schools) are unique and really do aim to see and serve every student.”

Some of the numbers shared with the school board this week showed enrollment at most of Camas’ choice schools is growing.

“CCA is really full,” Jaques said Monday of the district’s 4-year-old remote K-12 school. “The elementary program is full as of today … and the secondary program is full.”

CCA currently serves 192 students, Jaques said, including 167 middle and high school students and 25 K-5 students. Of that 192, Jaques said, 39% are low-income students, 17.2% are students with disabilities, 10.2% are students with a 504 plan that supports students with disabilities and 7% are highly capable students.

Likewise, Discovery and Hayes Freedom high schools are serving higher proportions of these higher-need students. At Discovery, for instance, 18.3% of the 192 students are highly capable, 18.3% are students with disabilities, 17.3% are from low-income families, 16.2% have a Section 504 plan; and 1.6% are homeless. At Hayes Freedom, the numbers are even higher, with 32% of Hayes’ 183 students qualifying as low-income, 26% as students with disabilities, 22% as having a Section 504 plan; and 3% as homeless.

Jaques said he was surprised to see that these smaller schools — which often provide a more flexible schedule and learning environment for students — are serving a greater share of students who fall into specialized categories including students who are highly capable, students with disabilities and low-income as well as homeless students.

“It was eye-opening for me, personally,” Jaques said. “The number are significantly higher in choice schools (for these student groups) and Hayes Freedom High School is significantly higher than the district average.”

Board member Erika Cox said she would like to see more of this data comparing the choice schools’ student populations compared to Camas’ neighborhood elementary and middle schools as well as to Camas High School.

“It would be nice to see this data … when we’re making decisions … just to keep in mind,” Cox said Monday.

Daniel Huld, who leads the school district’s remote Camas Connect Academy as well as the two PBL schools, told the Board this week that choice schools often are better able to “serve groups of kids with unique needs because (they) have smaller, more nimble programs.”

Jaques, Huld and Hayes Freedom Principal Amy Holmes also presented some of the choice schools’ successes to the school board this week.

“The graduation rate (at CCA) is a good success story,” Huld said. “It’s pretty high for online schools. The course completion rate is what we’re focusing on. (CCA has an) 86 percent passing rate. Camas High School is about 90 percent, so I’d like to continue to work on that. There’s a lot of work that goes into that.”

Hayes Freedom has been around long enough to now serve students of former graduates, Holmes told the Board this week.

“We have legacy kiddos,” Holmes said. “The word is out because we’ve been here long enough.”

As of Monday, Hayes Freedom had 185 students enrolled, which Holmes said is higher than usual.

“We start somewhere in the 140s and end in the 160s usually,” she said of Hayes Freedom’s typical enrollment.

One huge success at Hayes Freedom, Holmes said, is that 100% of the students who started as freshman at the choice high school are now on track to graduate.

Hayes Freedom focuses on connecting with students and helping them think critically while gaining confidence. Holmes said she wants Hayes Freedom students to feel safe and connected to their educators.

“That feeling of safety is so important for them to do the things we want them to do,” Holmes told the Board during their Monday workshop. “All kids belong in my class. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from. My job is to make them feel (safe).”

Holmes added that Hayes Freedom teachers have opted to retain their collaborative planning time and “meet every single Wednesday … to talk about the kids, talk about what’s working.”

“If a kid is not successful, that’s on us. We take that on,” Holmes said. “They can’t pass Hayes Freedom High School with anything lower than a ‘C,’ so when they get to that point where they might not pass, we’re talking to parents. We’re calling (families).”

Holmes said the school’s approach has formed long-lasting connections between educators and students.

“We have (graduated) students come back two to three times a week to visit, to get a hug,” Holmes said. “I like to think we’re a place where kids do that all the time, that (they feel we’re) a special place because of the connections we’ve made with them.”

Camas School District Superintendent John Anzalone addressed last year’s outcry over the district’s proposed budget cuts, which some students and families felt would have adverse outcomes for the district’s PBL schools and Hayes Freedom.

“There was some concern around CCA unifying with Discovery,” Anzalone said Monday, asking Huld how he and his staff had worked to overcome those concerns.

Huld said the merger between the remote CCA programs and the project-based learning Discovery High School has helped a few Discovery students take online classes they needed without having to leave the PBL campus, but admitted that some PBL students, staff and families still had concerns over the merger of the two programs.

“There is probably still some caution around that,” Huld said Monday.

Huld said he is trying to bring “rigor with more structure” to Discovery.

“We redid the mission statement at Discovery High School and involved students, staff and parents,” Huld said. “With new leadership, we’ve tried to figure out, ‘What are some of the things we’re hearing about Discovery?’ … and how do we make it clear what Discovery is.”

Having heard that many students are leaving the PBL campus in eighth grade in favor of what some families consider “real schools,” Huld said he wanted to clarify the PBL schools’ focus on collaboration and “authentic projects.”

“That was a concern for me,” he said Monday. “Rigor is one thing we’re going to work on. … And we need to talk about collaboration. Interested families should know (students) can’t get through Discovery without collaboration, so it’s important that we be upfront about that.”

School board members said Monday they would like to see more marketing efforts around the choice schools so that families and students better understand the type of educational opportunities available at CCA, Discovery, Odyssey and Hayes Freedom.

“It’s as much (about) educating parents as we do students,” Board member Tracey Malone said. “There are four high schools. How do we get that out to the entire community that we have these choice schools?”

Cox said the Board has talked about forming a communications committee, and that maybe that committee could help spread the word about the district’s choice schools.

Anzalone added that a recent survey showed that more than 70% of Camas School District families were aware of the choice schools, but maybe not to the level Board members would like to see.

“Current families know about our schools,” Anzalone said. “I think the understanding is there, but I don’t know if that ‘day in the life’ is there. They’re aware, but are they aware of what happens on a day-to-day basis? I’m not sure.”

Huld said he has purchased Facebook advertisements to help promote the online CCA programs available to Camas students as well as students in neighboring school districts.

“I use building funds to promote open houses and create a Facebook (ad),” Huld said. “You pay a certain sum, maybe $250, and get it out to several hundred people.”

Board members said they appreciated the update on the district’s choice schools.

“It really is rare for a district of our size to have multiple choice options,” Jaques said. “But it really is beneficial for our families.”