Options abound, National School Choice Week leaders point out
It's National School Choice Week Jan. 21 to Jan. 27, a public awareness campaign encouraging families to consider all their education options: traditional public school, charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and more.
Since 2011, there have been nearly 60,000 "school choice" events planned across the country to call attention to opportunities in education. And here in western Washington County, residents have a few local alternatives to neighborhood public schools, too.
For Swallowtail students, learning doesn't just happen in the classroom 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
It happens on the school's farm campus, on field trips, on immersive camping excursions and more. Children enrolled in Swallowtail Waldorf School and Farm study astronomy at night, geology in Eastern Oregon and Native American culture in the
Columbia River Gorge.
Swallowtail is a private, secular school that moved from downtown Hillsboro into the former Emmaus Christian School building on Cornelius' South Heather Street about two years ago.
The century-old Waldorf curriculum focuses on experiential learning, art and music along with math, science, foreign language, social studies and literature.
The students — guided by their teacher — create a lot of their own text books, which include drawings and other work to accompany the course material.
"The work is really quite impressive," said Brenda McCoy, Swallowtail's environmental and outreach coordinator. "When you go that extra mile you tend not to forget things."
The school also owns a 26-acre farm in Hillsboro, where students make use of an extensive garden and barnyard to learn about sustainability, permaculture, life cycles, animal husbandry, cooking, invasive species and more.
"The goal is to help kids grow up to be socially and environmentally responsible," McCoy said. "People are becoming disconnected to the land. We want the students to become more conscious of everything they're doing in the world."
The outdoor education is a draw for many families, said Denise Bohling, who has a son enrolled in Swallowtail's fifth grade.
She added, "But we really like what's happening in the classroom."
The students learn about a subject through reading, writing, acting, presenting, painting, drawing and more.
"They're taught in a holistic manner," Bohling said. "It becomes part of them, so they take it with them."
When fourth-graders learn about Norse mythology, for example, they perform traditional songs and dances. When they study Cuba in Spanish class, they prepare a few of the country's traditional foods.
The children make latkes in honor of Hanukkah and celebrate the Indian Pongal festival.
"More of their senses are engaged," said McCoy. "Movement, sound and smell — these are all really strong memory triggers."
While students have specialty teachers for certain subjects such as upper-level math, language and music, they stick with their homeroom teacher from the time they start through eighth grade.
"Teachers become really invested in who they are," Bohling said of Waldorf students.
Bohling, who attended public school as a child and works at Intel, believes this kind of Waldorf education fosters a lifelong love of learning and exploration.
While the curriculum is fun and engaging, it's still academically rigorous.
Bohling said she wants her son to go onto higher education, and she is encouraged after meeting several Waldorf graduates who went on to become valedictorians of their high school graduating class.
"Swallowtail is offering the opportunity to grow as individuals; we aren't expecting everyone to be the same," said McCoy. "We're holding a space in which the children can become whatever it is they're meant to become."
There are about 170 preschool through eighth-grade students. The average class is size is 16 students. Tuition ranges from $7,500 to $10,800 for different grade levels and is available on a sliding scale.
The Forest Grove Community School staff does things a little differently than the rest of the Forest Grove School District.
The first- through eighth-grade charter school focuses on sustainability, personalized education and experiential learning, said Principal Vanessa Gray.
"We're out and about, relating to classroom lessons," she told the News-Times.
The Community School is a public school, part of the Forest Grove School District and funded by the state. But charter schools run off their own curriculum and operate independently from the district.
There is an open-enrollment period January through April when families can submit applications. Students are then selected via a lottery system.
As part of a recent storytelling unit, for example, community students visited the Portland Art Museum's Laika exhibit, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Hillsboro-based stop-motion animation business. They then returned to the classroom to work on their own stop-motion projects.
"That has been really inspiring for the students," Gray said. "Sometimes they're learning things we didn't even plan for."
And when the students are focusing on a sustainability unit, they speak with members of the city's Sustainability Commission and visit a sustainable forestry center.
"We're focused on the broader educational experience," Gray said. "The students grow up thinking of the world as full of enriching experiences."
Parents frequently cite the smaller-than-average class sizes as a main factor in their decision to choose the Community School. There are 22 students in the first and second grades and about 26 students in the third through eighth grades.
Teachers work with the students' families to help the whole child develop, Gray said, and the small school size helps staff get to know children well.
Oftentimes, parents are also looking for a different approach to education than their neighborhood school, she remarked.
Community School staff members focus on social and emotional curriculum, as well as science, math, history and English. Such lessons include conflict resolution and becoming an "upstander," someone who is able to recognize when something is wrong and acts to make it right.
In addition, the Community School has a full-time art teacher, unlike other schools in the district.
The school doesn't emphasize state testing, Gray said, which many parents appreciate.
And while the Forest Grove Community School is funded at 58 cents on the dollar compared to other public schools, the students' test scores are always among the highest districtwide.
Alternative high school
The Forest Grove School District's Community Alternative Learning Center used to be the place for students who were kicked out of Forest Grove High School.
But now it's a whole lot more than that.
CALC is the place for students who need individualized assistance for a variety of reasons: They are behind on credits, thrive in a smaller atmosphere, have poor attendance or an extended absence, have transferred into the district mid-semester, or have had problems at FGHS that impair their progress.
Basically, the alternative learning center can support students in each of their varied needs to help them get back on track and graduate high school.
"We work to figure out what they need and get it for them," said Jonathan Loveng, CALC's lead teacher.
Staff can tailor individualized classes for students and help them with their online programs. There are a few unique classes to keep students engaged, such as an engineering and design class.
Sometimes, students are at the school a few months. Other times, they're enrolled for years. Students can choose to attend the school.
Many students who move into the district in the middle of the semester can start out at the alternative center to "hit the ground running," Loveng said.
With about 75 students, three teachers, two full- and one part-time instructional assistants, Loveng said, students can receive personalized attention and direct instruction they likely wouldn't get in a traditional high school setting.
The smaller, calmer environment is ideal for students who are anxious or who tend to get lost in the shuffle of Forest Grove High School, Loveng said, where there are about 2,000 students.
CALC staff members also work hard to create a sense of community among the students, which helps them feel more comfortable and ready to learn, and keeps them coming back.
They start each class with a "circle up," when students share their name, and how they're feeling that day and why. They also answer a different question each day. One recent example: "What musical artist, alive or dead, would you go see if you could see anyone in the world?"
Staff members are also implementing the Discovery Institute program, which teaches social-emotional skills to those struggling with academics and attitude. The program touches on social skills, behavior management, cultural development and experiential activities. The program also emphasizes problem solving and conflict resolution.
"It helps them be successful in school and life and beyond," Loveng said.
By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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