Orcas School explores alternative education plans

  • Tue Jun 17th, 2008 8:25pm
  • News

Although alternative learning education programs have been regulated by the state since 1985, incorporating “home-based education” into the Orcas Island School District (OISD) is still in the formative stages. OASIS High School, the alternative high school on Orcas, was formally established just last year. Internet learning has been part of the official school credit program since 2004.

These and other elements of OISD’s Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) program were the subject of a special school board meeting on April 2.

Lyle Holland, Executive Director of the Washington Alternative Learning Association, spoke to the OISD Board of Directors, school district administrators, staff and the public; his remarks were followed by those from parents and those working in the ALE program within the district.

Holland discussed the legislative overview, operational changes and guidelines, program choices and funding.

In 1995, Holland said, the State Office of Public Instruction OSPI ruled that K-12 programs in alternative learning could be established, and the most widely used model was a “Parent Partner Program.”

Alternative education today involves three programs, Holland said: the “at risk” programs, described by state law as programs for those students who are at risk of dropping out or failing out of school; contract studies, in which the teacher makes a contract with the student to perform specified work for credits toward graduation; and Parent Partner Programs, which began as parents being the primary instructors and interacting with the teachers.

In 2004, the Digital Learning Commons (DLC) internet instruction was initiated, so that students could earn credits independently through classes such as Advanced Placement or foreign languages. Holland distinguished “digital learning,” such as through the DLC, from “distance learning,” where the instructor is a physical distance away from the student.

Holland also made the distinction between “Home Schooling” and “Home-based instruction.” Home schooling, Holland said, is “not legally defined.” There are three kinds of instruction in Washington State he said – public schools, private schools, or home-based instruction (separate from the public district). The three do not combine together, although a student can be a part-time student at one type of instruction or another.

Problems arise when the distinctions are not clear, Holland said. “Districts can’t supervise home-based instruction.” Holland described three types of state funding: the basic educational allowance (BEA); ancillary services such as speech therapy, which can be contracted out; and alternative learning education.

The district assumes the responsibility for budget policy regarding purchasing materials for ALE students. District boards who cede spending allocation authority to parents have done so illegally, Holland maintained. “You can’t give away that responsibility.”

Board Member Keith Whitaker asked whether ALE students add cost or revenue to the district’s budget. Board Member Tony Ghazel said, “It’s misleading to say ALE students cost [the district]. To argue against any student because of cost is the wrong way to look at it.”

Holland replied that the cost per ALE student is more than the revenue allocated per student.

Whitaker asked how other school districts addressed this cost-revenue imbalance.

Holland said that for the districts that broke even, there were three factors: 30 to 35 FTE students per instructor; a long-term commitment for instructional materials so that they are recycled; and making use of community resources such as volunteers and instructors. However, a contracted instructor must be employed by the district, undergoing licensing and background checks, and the contractor must be supervised by a teacher who is “highly-qualified” in the core academic area of the subject.

Middle/High School Principal Barbara Kline said that Marta Branch, ALE teacher for the district’s OASIS High School, is “close to being highly qualified in a lot of areas.” Kline added, “The community is rich with people who could teach under a highly qualified supervisor in core areas” such as elementary, arts, social studies. Kline said she was happy the district undertook an ALE program, citing Susan McCaull’s work as head of the ALE committee.

Kline sees ALE “serving kids that have moved away, or dropped out or at risk, as well as providing enrichment classes.” Kline added that there are still policies that need to be worked out.

Branch said that of the 32 students enrolled in the ALE program, six had medical conditions where they needed to see a doctor at least twice a month, seven had been in Special Education program, one lived on a remote island, and five were in a traditional home-based program.

Last year, 19 OASIS High School students earned state diplomas or (GED) certificates.

Branch’s office is on the school district campus, next to the school library. She allots one “sacred” hour per week for each student to meet with her, although she regularly spends more than a hour with a student. She notes that the students also help each other.

Glasser asked Branch how she thought the ALE program should be developed. Branch said, “Not all kids can be served in the traditional model because we aren’t all alike for all kinds of reasons.” She knows of 13 kids “that we’re not serving,” but is unable to offer them education through ALE. “We’re likely to graduate seven students right away, and 10 are likely to get their GEDs,” said Branch.

Board Member Charlie Glasser said, “I’m struggling to figure out where the money really fits. I’d like to explore different ways of delivering that are not cost-driven, and how to really use community resources.”

Linda Sullivan who serves 26 ALE students in grades 5 through 8, notes that the bulk of her students are between the first and fifth grades. Sullivan teaches in ALE as a .4 FTE. Ghazel said “It doesn’t make sense to me that that’s enough time … something is wrong with the formula.”

Sullivan said that a lot has changed in ALE in recent years. “There’s a lot more requirements on monitoring, and it’s hard for people who were used to the old rules.”

Providing some perspective, Kathy Ciskowski said that as the coordinator for the OASIS program from 2004 to 2006, “I felt that there were some shining educational moments.” Ciskowski was hired both years at .6 and met with ALE students two times a week, following tutoring and consultant models. “As a group we did what we could with the budget, and we felt as a model it was generally successful.”

“I’m guessing it’s a little too informal for modern times,” Ciskowski said.

Don Weston who moved to Orcas Island last fall after being a part-time islander for 12 years, worked for the Evergreen District’s Alternative School, teaching up to 28 students at a time. Weston “has been a huge resource since he moved to Orcas, as a substitute,” said Branch. The school had about 250 students in a 25,000 student school district.

“The majority of the alternative students went on to college,” Weston said. “There were lots of success stories.”

Ghazel said, “We need to make sure our kids know that ALE is not an inferior program.”

Ghazel’s attitude was backed up by part-time ALE, part-time Orcas High School student Jamarra Lowry who said she felt she “learned more and learned better” through ALE classes.

Board President Janet Brownell said that she would like to see an ALE advisory committee set up, and that subject will be on a coming meeting agenda.

The next school board meeting will be on the budget. It will be held on April 17 at 5 p.m.

County government and agencies are working together to ensure that the environment of the county’s islands and waters is protected. On April 19, on Lopez Island, a “Conservation Summit” will show all islanders what is happening to their environment, what has been done to protect it, and what they can do to be a part of local efforts to preserve the environment.

The Conservation Summit is presented by the Stewardship Network of the San Juans. The network includes staff and volunteers involved in issues such as bottomfish recovery, salmon restoration, oil spill prevention and response, and building a sustainable business network. Their website is www.stewardshipsjc.org.

Orcas Islander Jeff Hanson has been hired as San Juan County Ecosystems Education Coordinator, a grant-funded position. As coordinator, he works with four “bosses”: Mary Knackstedt at Marine Resources Committee (MRC); Barbara Rosenkotter, the lead entity for Salmon Restoration; Amy Windrope of the San Juan Initiative; and Shireene Hale, County Planner for the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Hanson has created the Marine Stewardship website newsletter at www.sjcmrc.org/newsletter/Site/Home.html. In it, he writes: “Our community has been moving towards a healthy and sustainable future for fish, wildlife and people in the Marine Stewardship Area through work of the Critical Areas Ordinance Update, the Marine Resources Committee, Salmon Recovery Program and the San Juan Initiative. These four groups are working in collaboration with each other – and with the community – to effectively steward the natural resources of San Juan County by protecting what is pristine, restoring what is damaged and creating sound management practices to minimize human impacts. For this vision to succeed, every resident, visitor and business owner must be involved.”

The Stewardship Network Steering Committee states that its mission is “to promote a stewardship ethic in the San Juan Islands. Good stewards are caretakers of the natural world … a stewardship ethic … reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the ecosystem.”

It is hoped that, through the Conservation Summit and the newsletter, the public will join the network and become involved in its work. Kit Rawson, MRC committee chair, has said, “San Juan County continues to lead the region in protecting the marine environment. The success of our work depends on the many partner organizations and individual citizens who will be participating with us in … our projects.”

David Dicks, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Partnership, will provide the keynote address.

The “Good Steward” Award Winners for 2008 will be acknowledged at the Conservation Summit. The award trophies, or “Finnies,” will be a ceramic salmon, created by Crow Valley potters Michael Rivkin and Jeffri Coleman. There is still time to nominate an island steward and recognize individuals, families, and businesses that have made a significant impact on the conservation, preservation, and protection of the San Juan Archipelago. Contact Kathleen Foley at (360) 378-2461 for nomination information; nomination forms and selection criteria can be found at www.StewardshipSJC.org or at www.co.san-juan.wa.us/land_bank.

Children ages 5 to 12 can be enrolled in a “Kid’s Camp” (an environmental learning opportunity) during the morning speaker session. The “Kid’s Camp” is organized by Fiona Norris of the San Juan Nature Institute.

A locally grown lunch will be provided by Vortex and local farmers.

In the afternoon, field trips are planned to the following sites:

• Watmough Bight/Chadwick Hill Hike: Visit one of Lopez’s jewels with a trip to stunning Watmough Bight or Chadwick Hill.

• Sea Kayaking on Fisherman Bay: Enjoy watching seabirds and revel in the serenity of a two-hour kayak trip on quiet Fisherman Bay.

• Wildflower Walk on Iceberg Point: Join the San Juan Preservation Trust on a ramble over private and public lands on Lopez’s stunning Iceberg Point. April is prime wildflower time on these windswept headlands; come learn new species or visit old favorites.

• “Treasure for Trash” Weeks Wetland/Lopez Village Service Trip: Celebrate Earth Day by giving back. Help clean up Weeks Wetland and Lopez Village and you may find a hidden treasure to boot!

Registration fees are: Adults $15, Kids 12 and under $5. Registration covers the Summit meeting, field trips (except kayaking which has an additional fee), transportation, and lunch, as well as the Kid’s Camp for those registering.

The Conservation Summit takes place at Lopez Center and field trip sites from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. To register, go to www.stewardshipsjc.org/summit or call 378-4402.

Future events by the Stewardship Network include May 17 “San Juan County/Lead Entity Day” in Deer Harbor, part of a statewide event to bring attention to salmon recovery efforts around the state, and in particular, the Deer Harbor estuary project.

Call (360) 378-4402 or visit www.StewardshipSJC.org for more details.