Would shifting dollars to a more innovative, engaging (fun?) form of education result in a better return on investment?

Perhaps it's because the way education is done in Prineville is changing so dramatically in the last few years, but it seems that the landscape of learning is shifting in some new, and potentially exciting directions.

Or at least it should be.

The last few months have personally been eye-opening for me. I have one child who is just wrapping up her elementary school days and the other is getting ready to enter high school. Both experiences gave me a sideline view of what is getting offered these days in Crook County, and it makes me wonder if our community is the only one. Hopefully not.

Starting with my soon-to-be high school student. He will be the first to admit that traditional academics are not his favorite thing. Sitting in class, facing front, absorbing lectures and taking notes — these things aren't that exciting for him. So, having transitioned from middle to high school myself, I knew how much more work-intensive school life would get, how much more studying would be necessary, how much more reading and writing would be required. How would this go? I was nervous.

But what I failed to realize is that times are changing and what high school offers is changing, at least here in Prineville. As a journalist, I was aware of the recent pursuit of CTE (career and technical education) courses, but as a parent, I underestimated what awaited my child – until attending his high school orientation. There, we learned about a variety of educational options from culinary to health care to forestry to engineering to robotics and more. My son, who mostly just tolerates the academic aspect of school, was captivated. The class offerings at the orientation were organized in booths, much like a career fair, and he went from station to station, chatting with instructors and picking up literature. He is, for the first time in years, excited for September.

More recently, my daughter, who just completed fifth grade, has joined the Summer Blast program. It is best described as summer school meets summer camp — kids participate and compete in outdoor games and activities daily and complete hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lessons that also incorporate reading and writing.

The organizers, armed with special COVID-prompted summer school funding, set out to create a learning environment where kids couldn't wait to head to school. It worked. More than 600 kids have enrolled and more sit on a waiting list. My daughter is in summer school — going to class during her treasured summer break — and she's having a blast (pun intended).

Anyone who pays attention to state and federal activity and spending is likely aware of the ongoing struggle to not only fund public education but get the desired academic results from the public school system. Citizens rightly raise concerns about education quality, graduation rates and academic proficiency. They speak out against curriculums that "teach to the test" and worry that kids exit the school system unprepared for the real world.

Perhaps the time has come for a more widespread embrace of what we are seeing play out locally. Yes, the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic will always have its place as will history classes, language arts and the like. But why not inject some engaging, active elements where kids can actually do things, not just read about things? They might have a better chance of retaining what they are learning, which could boost those pesky test scores. Also, they might be more eager to go to school, stick with it and give the graduation rates a bump.

Does this sound a bit utopian? Perhaps it is. But if we step back and look at what made these sorts of things possible in Prineville, it all comes down to funding. Yes, local educators have been forward-thinking, but money is the fuel for their engine, and the school district has been blessed with more of it than other places. The Summer Blast program was made possible by special COVID summer school dollars. The expanding array of CTE programs is buoyed in part by Facebook grants and other donations as well as community partnerships.

So, perhaps future education funding questions need to change. Instead of looking at school funding and how it will pay for primarily traditional public education, it may be time to look at how that money is getting spent — whether shifting dollars to a more innovative, engaging (fun?) form of education would result in a better return on investment.

It doesn't have to happen overnight, nor could it, but if what I have seen locally, and as a parent, is any indication, it is certainly a direction worth pursuing.

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