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After nearly 17 years, doors will close for the final time June 8, but the memories of community and belonging will continue

COURTESY PHOTO: ARTS AND TECHNOLOGY HIGH SCHOOL - Thirteen students will graduate on June 8, marking the last senior class as the school closes.Within a few minutes of walking through the front doors, Michelle Quinn knew Arts & Technology High School was the place for her.

It was midway through her freshman year and the now-senior was feeling "extremely nervous" about starting anew after transferring from Wilsonville High School. But before she could even take a seat in her homeroom, she made a group of friends.

"I was barely through the door and someone just came over and introduced themselves; then four other people walked over to say hi. It was the fastest I've ever made friends," Quinn said.

Since its opening in 2005, Art Tech has served as a place of fast friendships, acceptance and academic growth for students in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. The specialized public high school in Wilsonville was created for students with various learning needs who usually attend the school to close the gap on any credit deficiencies.

But on June 8, Quinn, alongside 12 of her classmates, will walk across the graduation stage — which will mark the final group of graduating seniors leaving the school as it officially closes its doors due to the opening of a new third-option high school, Riverside, which will serve a similar function to Art Tech on a larger scale.

But according to students and staff, the memories and sense of community created at the school will live on.

Building academic success alongside community and belonging

Art Tech is built on the needs of students, according to former Art Tech staff member Cheryl Wilson.

Wilson was a counselor and educator at the school from its opening until 2021. Alongside a team of other staff members, teachers and counselors, Wilson helped design the high school's curriculum based on ensuring the success of each student who walked through the doors.

"When the student comes into the school, they're already thinking about hitting the reset button in being able to identify what they want to do, and then (we) help them move forward with their goals — whatever that looks like to them," Wilson said.

The curriculum was focused on breaking down barriers that students faced at other schools with accessible lesson plans that catered to each student's ambitions, according to Wilson. A few core tenets included working with the students to recognize their skills, emphasizing smaller class sizes and conducting frequent check-ins with staff that built strong relationships.

"Art Tech was really about building community and belonging, and then also putting academics in the middle of all of that," Wilson said. "It took a team of people to wrap around these kids so that they really understood they were supported. For the past 15 years, the mission was to support students who don't feel connected to our system and lead them to pretty successful lives."

For students, the school offers crucial building blocks to pick themselves up after having difficulties at other high schools.

Before attending Art Tech, senior Jules Platnick was on the brink of receiving no credits for her freshmen year at West Linn High School after missing class for nearly four months. They said the strong relationships and support from staff helped them thrive in their remaining years of school.

"So many people don't realize how many kids have mental health issues, disabilities and are experiencing things that are affecting them at home," Platnick said. "So when kids are 'stimming' or have issues where they just need to fidget or just chill, I think that's something that's not recognized in other schools. Art Tech is a place where you can just take a second to chill and talk to people while also focusing on school."

Cooper Buffington, a senior who transferred from Wilsonville High School earlier this year, said building community at Art Tech was significantly easier than at his previous school.

"I have a better connection with all these guys than I had at my other school, and I think that is because the classes are smaller and more individualized. And all the staff and students are super friendly and welcoming," he said.

Buffington also noted that Art Tech students have a lot of support from staff that helps shape them.

"Art Tech really recognizes each student's strengths and weaknesses," Buffington said, "and they help students with their weaknesses by building them up and also help them explore their strengths and motivate them to pursue further skill sets. "

Beyond the curriculum, the school prioritized experiences that could open more doors for students, according to staff. Over the years, students have embarked on countless field trips, internships and class exercises that broaden their perspective on what their life could look like after they walk the graduation stage. Learning specialist Kate Gaede said giving students a sneak peek of different jobs or colleges they could attend may have boosted morale and excitement about future possibilities.

"What I love about this school is we don't assume everyone is going to college, because they aren't," Gaede said. "So we figure out what skills we want to give our students so they can be successful and get ready to transition these classes into the workforce and as a contributing member of society."

Graduates of the school have gone on to be tradespeople, pursue higher education and even return to Art Tech as a counselor or educator.

But the school doesn't just help students on paper; it also creates a sense of community, according to students.

Staff members and students recalled that when a student died by suicide a few years back, the school community spent lunch periods together every day for two months, healing over grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. This began a tradition of annual community lunches where students were gifted with blankets.

"The idea of the blanket was to wrap around you and connect us together. It became a tradition and was a big deal for our school," Gaede said.

And when someone close to Quinn died, people at school would constantly check in on her. COURTESY PHOTO: ARTS AND TECHNOLOGY HIGH SCHOOL - Through community lunches and other means, Art Tech students and staff built strong relationships.

"I just received overwhelming support from people here, and I never felt alone during that really hard time, and I really appreciated that. I had a friend who wouldn't stop hugging me. Because I don't know if I would have gotten that at another high school, and I would have been in a very darker place," Quinn said.

Nic Chapin, the principal at Art Tech, will take over the top position at the new third-option high school when it opens at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year. He said over recent months, the school district has worked alongside students to ensure that the best parts of Art Tech are fed into the other schools during the transitional period.

"We've learned a lot and had an opportunity to work with a great group of seniors who have taught us a lot about what's working and what's not working," Chapin said. "And (we want to) really carry on the things that Art Tech (staff) have done to support students and create that sense of community and inclusion, which will hopefully carry on long after the school closes."

Art Tech will have its final graduation at 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Community members are welcome to celebrate students and the school.

"Art Tech really was a community," Quinn said. "Students oftentimes have felt like they didn't maybe feel connected or welcomed in bigger school communities, and they would come here and feel like they had a fresh start and they finally belonged somewhere."

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