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Using smaller high schools, Bend-La Pine reaches for students on the edges
Skyline and Realms high schools share a lunchroom that shows the industrial history of their school building. Bend-La Pine Schools opened two smaller high schools in a warehouse to offer options for students turned off by the district’s large high schools. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Bend-La Pine Schools has turned the concept of warehousing students on its head, and they love it.
The district opened two small high schools last year in an industrial building, redesigning the high school experience based on a vision of what students need to thrive.
District leadership wanted to create innovative education options that reached students not in the broad middle served by their big schools, said Deputy Superintendent Jay Mathisen.
“We are looking to design to the edges,” he said.
Bend’s three large high schools each have more than 1,400 students. District leaders say the model works for most students. The schools all had graduation rates above 87% for 2017-18, and 2017 bond funds are building another large high school.
Oregon’s poor graduation and attendance rates, though, have pushed educators to consider where the system is failing some students. Bend-La Pine has created the two smaller schools to offer a more personal and engaged learning environment to appeal to students who might not thrive in its larger schools.
“It comes down to your core mission to serve every single student,” said Katie Legace, the district’s executive director of high schools.
Principals at both schools and Mathisen stress that these are not stereotypical “last chance” alternative schools for struggling students. These are choice options, open to all walks of academic life.
Leadership didn’t want to just break up a big school – they hoped to start with a blank state, Mathisen said.
The district leased an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and built classrooms and common areas inside using general fund money. Realms and Skyline high schools started with freshman and sophomore classes and added juniors this year, pushing the student populations to about 120 each. Each will add a senior class next school year.
The building looks like the warehouse it was, with loading dock doors and exposed beams, insulation, plumbing and ductwork. The classrooms through the building’s center are made of bare oriented strand board walls. The library is a few shelves in an open space near the front, with curling yellow sticky notes denoting the sections. Sound carries, and keeping temperatures even has been impossible.
Students say they don’t care. The warehouse has been a point of pride and fun for the students. Students have decorated the walls with murals and other art. They have pingpong tables in the eating area, and they can skateboard inside in the physical education area.
The building is leased through 2030-31, with a purchase option. The district is subleasing about a quarter of the warehouse while the schools are growing. A chain-link fence separates the student physical education space from leased-out company storage space.
It cost about $800,000 to open the schools and about another $800,000 to expand and upgrade the student spaces, according to Mathisen. The district added staffing costs of two principals, two office support people and a custodian. Teaching numbers are related to district enrollment, so those costs were already a part of the budget.
The district buses students, and a shuttle allows them to participate in the bigger schools’ sports teams, activities and elective classes.
Although Skyline and Realms share the same roof, they retain distinct cultures. Students don’t mix much.
Skyline follows a mostly traditional academic core, but with a greater focus on community and character. Skyline has tinkered with the calendar, too, adding “intercessions” between terms. Students get out of the classroom and spend a week intently focusing on a topic such as music or mountaineering for a quarter class credit.
Skyline Principal Mike Franklin taught on a Washington reservation, in remote Alaska villages and at a Hawaiian boarding school. He uses those experiences to form his vision of a whole-child learning environment where every adult is expected to be a teacher and mentor, making student connections. Students say Franklin walks his talk.
“He’s not just building community; he’s in the community,” said sophomore Malana Biddle. “Everybody’s in the community, not looking outside of it.”
Many students are drawn to the smaller size.
Skyline sophomore Grace Noble started at Bend’s Mountain View High School but was overwhelmed by the crowded hallways.
“I felt like if I went to a smaller school I could get the help I needed,” she said.
Noble said her grades have improved and now she likes school rather than hating it.
Skyline freshman Lucas Songstad said he went to an online school in seventh and eighth grade because he had problems with bullies. He wanted to return to school for the social aspects, he said, but he wanted a smaller school.
“Less problems, less drama,” Songstad said.
Realms High School is an outgrowth of Realms Middle School, a popular district choice school. Realms uses the EL Education approach, which stresses experiential learning.
Realms Principal Roger White said his school responds to the district’s need to be nimbler.
“Our big high schools are good, but they are hard to shift,” he said.
Realms uses semesterlong projects to teach multidisciplinary lessons and lets students take the lead. It puts an emphasis on working in the community with experts. Realms caters to students who want to know the purpose of their learning and connect it to real-world issues, White said.
For instance, the sophomores explored climate change last year, with an aim to create a final project for the community. They designed case studies on environmental issues and did fieldwork, and the school brought in experts to speak. The class chose to produce a zine, complete with ads, that was distributed through a local weekly newspaper. Students also took a school-adopted climate action resolution to the school board.
Realms junior Tobin Anderson said the group work and a focus on everyone succeeding clicked for him. He said he was failing at Bend’s Summit High School but now he is getting A’s and B’s and he wants to go to college.
Sophomore Eternity Owens said her grades have improved too. She said Realms has made her feel confident she can be successful in college, whereas before she was afraid to go.
School Board Co-Chair Carrie Douglass said the board will give the schools time to measure student demand and whether the schools can achieve strong academic results.
She said she is thrilled by her district’s willingness to try different things.
“A lot of times we see small, innovative schools like these starting up as charter schools,” Douglass said. “But there is no reason that districts can’t do it too.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA