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Charter schools offer alternative learning environment

Children are busy cutting colorful shapes out of sheets of tissue paper and pasting them to construction paper.

When an adult enters the room, children crowd around waving their decorated kites.

Not what you pictured when you think of a virtual school?

This is an Estacada Web Academy Wednesday enrichment activity at the River Mill Annex.

Other regular Wednesday enrichment activities at River Mill include art projects, P.E., science labs, music lessons, study hall and one-on-one tutoring.

The Web Academy is one of the two Estacada Charter Schools, the other is the Estacada Early College.

Both schools are sponsored by the Estacada School District and serve students from throughout Oregon, but primarily from the Portland Metropolitan area.

Only a small percentage of the students reside within the Estacada School District.

The Web Academy is a K-12 free public charter school that utilizes virtual curriculum and emphasizes individualized education plans.

Associate principal Sean Gallagher said that even though the curriculum is virtual, students are still socialized.

The live online classrooms provide plenty of opportunity for interaction between teachers and students and students and students in real time.

Gallagher estimates about 30 percent of the school’s population shows up to the Wednesday enrichment activities at River Mill.

He said the Web Academy is designed to accommodate the individual needs of its students.

For example, the Web Academy offers Pregnant and Parenting services to students who have or are expecting children.

Gallagher said he thinks students respond well to the Web Academy’s approach to education because it is a personal, individualized setting.

As the curriculum is delivered without the “distractions of the classroom or stress of the hallway,” for some students, it is an easier environment to focus on academics than a traditional school, Gallagher said.

“I think it’s refreshing for people to have a fresh start,” he said.

Students ages 16 and up may earn dual college and high school credit at community college through Estacada Early College.

“We pay for your college. You’ll graduate from high school with a massive amount of college credit,” Gallagher said. “If you’re really successful, you graduate high school with an associate’s degree.”

According to the school’s website, the Estacada Early College pays up to $1,250 per term through a third-party billing system.

The school has third-party billing arrangements with Clackamas Community College, Mt. Hood Community College, Portland Community College and Chemeketa Community College.

Gallagher explained that the Early College serves a wide variety of students. Some are super-achieving, wanting to pursue challenging coursework. The spectrum also ranges to students in need of credit-recovery.

The leaders of the Estacada Charter Schools are in the process of merging the two programs into one school and offering the Early College as a program of the Web Academy.

Gallagher and Estacada Charter Schools Principal Joni Tabler are clearly proud of their schools.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands that (the charters are) an asset to Oregon, to these students and to this district,” Gallagher told the Estacada School Board of Directors during the March School Board Meeting. “It’s a real, real asset. Because without us, I’m not sure where these kids would get the education that they need and want.”

“I hope that the district feels they are supporting really valid programs that are helping a lot of students because we know we are,” Tabler said.

Why the pitch?

Both schools are struggling in terms of graduation rates and state assessments.

For the 2012-13 year, the Web Academy’s four-year graduation rate was 27.2 percent and the Early College’s was 20.9 percent.

In 2013, the Web Academy’s performance was ranked in the bottom 15 percent of Oregon schools while the Early College was ranked in the bottom 5 percent.

“The population of students that we serve are the most at-risk youths in the state in our area, not necessarily in terms of their demographics, but with their at-risk behaviors, risk of dropping out of school, their lack of credits, their school attendance and a host of other issues,” Gallagher said.

In an earlier interview, Gallagher explained that many students arrive at the charter schools already so deficient in credits that it would be impossible to graduate on time.

Acceptance of students in this category inevitably lowers the schools’ graduation rates.

Tabler said many students who came to the Estacada Charter Schools extremely credit-deficient have since completed their education.

“What’s really important to me and the people who work here is that students have a place to go and get educated,” Gallagher said.

This value, Gallagher implied, is not clearly reflected in state assessments based primarily on graduation rates and cohort achievement benchmarks.

“Our institutions accept all learners, and at all levels, even if they have not been successful in previous settings,” Gallagher wrote in an email. “Regardless of previous success, the charter schools in Estacada believe in the educational opportunity for all children. This position, which is the foundation of our mission, will always create a misunderstanding in the state report card results. I encourage every parent to rate our schools based on their child’s individual success and happiness.”

For more information on Estacada’s Charter Schools visit estacadacharters.org.



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