Wednesday Academy expands class possibilities at smaller high school
Jefferson High School language arts teacher Nicole Karnes helps junior Lilly Courtney make a pillow during a Wednesday Academy sewing class. One day a week students and teachers enjoy creative and learning opportunities outside the usual class schedule. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Jefferson High School Principal Cathy Emmert somewhat sheepishly admits the idea for Wednesday Academy came to her in a dream.
Emmert had been pondering how to increase student opportunities in the small Jefferson School District, about 20 minutes south of Salem. One night it just clicked. One day a week her school would have a completely different class schedule with block periods and real-world lessons.
Emmert doesn’t mind saying it felt like inspiration, but she doesn’t want Wednesday Academy’s unorthodox origin to detract from the significant ways it has changed her school’s week. She is quick to emphasize her teachers’ input and hard work to make her revolutionary idea work.
Every Wednesday, the high school classes toss their usual schedules and subjects out the window and spend the day exploring topics ranging from how to find the best bank interest rate to after-graduation options and group interpersonal dynamics. Students learn about topics such as social dancing, cooking or horticulture.
On a recent Wednesday morning, freshman Alyssa Barker was learning details about setting up a bank account. In the afternoon, she was working with sheet metal in one of the school’s shops.
Wednesday Academy, in its second year, engages students and invigorates teachers. District leaders say they are compiling data on grades, behavior and attendance but it is too early to draw comparisons. Anecdotally, staff members are seeing less behavior and attendance problems.
“These days are a little smoother,” Vice Principal Blane Lazar said.
Typically, the school averages about eight behavior incidents a day, but it averages about one on Wednesdays, according to Lazar.
School leaders, including School Board Chair Kaye Jones, have also noticed that there seems to be fewer students in the hallways during Wednesday class times, indicating students want to be where the learning is.
Jones said the board likes what it is seeing.
A typical Jefferson day is divided into seven 50-minute periods. Wednesdays, though, have two 90-minute block periods and one hourlong life skills period, with an early release. Students earn 0.25 credit per semester for the block classes and 0.12 credit for the life skills to meet Oregon’s instructional hours requirements.
The life skills portion presents a different curriculum for each grade level. Students learn things not normally taught in core classes, such as obtaining car insurance, finding a pet, paying taxes, researching post-high school options and personal budgeting.
Students choose their block period classes. This year’s Wednesday Academy offers more than two dozen options for Jefferson’s 260 students.
The block periods include career and technical education, college-level courses, labs for regular courses and general skills. Course titles range from “Service Learning/Community Service” and “Wheels and Wings” to “Hands on Biology” and “Yoga Fit Dance.”
The block courses allow Jefferson to offer its students a wider array of classes than its small staff size would typically support. Also, students who might not consider taking a CTE or fitness class for a full semester can get a taste of one.
The High School Success Fund, known as Measure 98, provided much of the startup funds for the new courses’ needs. Emmert was especially pleased to learn this year about the extra funding from the Student Success Act, which fully funded Measure 98.
“This is just dollars for opportunity,” she said. “Maybe some schools can buy 12 sewing machines. I can’t do that.”
The schedule change required union concessions. Teachers gave up their Wednesday prep period, and they essentially took on teaching an additional class with no extra pay.
It is a lot more work for Jefferson’s 16 teachers. Some teach block courses and life skills related to their core teaching duties, but others are stretching into new realms. Teachers must create original lesson plans and shift gears in the middle of the week.
Social studies teacher Zach Maison, the teachers union building representative, has been at Jefferson for 10 years. He credited Emmert with building a foundation of trust and respect that could support this experiment, and he praised her collaborative approach to designing the day.
“It’s a tough ask,” he said. “It shows how committed we are as a staff to help our kids.”
He said it allows teachers to pursue areas of interest and try something new but more importantly it gives students extra opportunities. He also said teachers can interact with students in different ways, building relationships that carry over into the regular classrooms.
Maison said that in general the staff likes the setup but that it would be difficult to sustain unless the Wednesday workload eases over time.
Math teacher Poul Murtha said his “Food for Life” culinary class has been less work this year as he has ironed out some of the kinks. He still spends about two hours a week outside class, though, getting groceries and prepping materials, he said.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding,” he said.
Students widely praise Wednesday Academy. Older students said it seemed like a wild idea when introduced last year but they had really grown to appreciate it. Seniors and juniors said they wish it had been available to them from the start.
Students most often described Wednesday Academy as a break from the regular week, a chance to refresh and refocus.
“I don’t have to stress out about this class every single day,” said freshman Arlette Moreno in a sewing class.
Freshman Cristian Medrano said his fitness walking class offers a chance to socialize and it gives him time to think through things and calm down when he is stressed.
Whether students are planning to go to college, considering a trade or just not sure what they will do with their life, they see a connection between Wednesdays and their future.
“Some of the other stuff you might never use again,” said junior Daniel Aguilar. “This stuff you have to know for life.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA