FILE — Elementary school students at Apple Valley and Summitview elementary schools are attending classes at West Valley High School’s freshman campus as replacement elementary schools are built. In the fall of 2021, the campus will become an Innovation Center.

Almost exactly 10 months after West Valley School District proposed transforming its Freshman Campus into an “innovation school” with a flexible learning environment for students in the district, the plan is moving forward.

Tuesday, the school board approved using the building as an Innovation Center beginning in fall 2021.

The center will be host to health science; STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); computer science; and media production programs — in line with the top career paths sought by West Valley students, according to the district. In its first year, the center’s programs will serve students in grades seven through nine. The following year, it will be expanded to also include grades 10 through 12.

Several other district programs will also have access to the building and its resources.

In the coming months, a principal will be assigned to the building and the school will begin vetting potential students for the first year of learning.

The background and pitch

The Innovation Center was pitched to the community during a February meeting as a self-paced learning environment for students in grades seven through 12, allowing flexibility for students who struggled to keep up in class or who outpaced the classroom curriculum.

All courses in a normal classroom setting take 180 days to complete, Superintendent Michael Brophy said at the time. Students either pass or fail.

But students in the innovation program could move on to a subsequent course if they complete content early, he said. And while students would be required to meet specific state standards, the program would be standards-based. What that means, he said, is students would build upon their knowledge until they master a subject, but would never fail.

Other proposals included individual learning plans based on student goals and needs — from mental health to work concerns; fewer time constraints; support for graduation pathways and career preparation; the ability to participate in sports, electives and assemblies with fellow middle and high school students.

Immediately, the proposed center received widespread praise. Parents and teachers alike saw it as an opportunity to better serve West Valley students who were otherwise falling through the cracks.

The district’s four-year graduation rate has fluctuated between 78% and 83% over the past five years — which to the district indicates that it’s not meeting the needs of about 20% of its students when they’re entering the high school years, according to Brophy.

“We know that we can do better — that we can find a way to meet the needs of our kids,” he said Wednesday.

But back in February, there were a few things that community and board members wanted settled before moving forward with the proposal. Among them were discussions of grade reconfiguration and a long-term facilities plan for the district, determining how building would best be used.

Later that month, the school board approved new grade configuration for the district. Elementary schools would host students in grades kindergarten through five; students in grades six through eight would be in middle school; and students in grades nine through 12 would remain at the high school.

A facilities plan presented to the board Dec. 8 reinforced that strategy. It also included plans to add pre-kindergarten programs to each elementary school — something possible without building developments through realigning school boundaries — and turning the unused Freshman Campus into the new Innovation Center.

The board approved those plans that night, and on Tuesday also approved proposals for the new Innovation Center, beginning next school year.

After winter break, the district plans to begin the hiring process for the principal position, which Brophy said could be an internal hire. Once that decision is made, applications and admissions can begin.

The school will likely be staffed by teachers already within the district, he said.

The cost of teachers as well as small building updates to prepare the campus for the specific programs will be largely covered by Career and Technical Education staffing funds as well as pre-existing CTE program funding, said Chris Nesmith, the district’s CTE programs director.

Kicking off

The Innovation Center is expected to open in fall 2021. About 600 students across various West Valley programs will have access to the building for resources like reliable internet. But the vast majority will access the building one to two days a week.

Ninety-six will be students across grades seven, eight and nine studying in the Innovation Center’s new programs: STEM, health sciences or computer sciences.

Students in those grades will study in an exploratory fashion, said Brophy. For the first half of the day, they might be working with a CTE instructor in STEM before turning to health sciences in the second half of the day. The next semester, they might try computer sciences.

“They’ll be dabbling in all (programs) to see what area they might want to get into,” he said.

In fall 2022, the digital media program for seventh through ninth graders will launch, as well as the health sciences, computer sciences and STEM programs for students in grades 10 through 12. The addition of these programs will allow for roughly 128 new students studying in the Innovation Center.

By 10th grade, students are expected to decide on a core area of study. For the first half of the day, they would be with their specialized CTE instructor. In the afternoon, they would be placed in an internship or apprenticeship on the job to help students prepare for a career after school, said Nesmith. He said this is part of an effort to integrate students into society better prior to graduation.

The following year, in 2023, the digital media program for 10th through 12th graders will launch.

Across all four Innovation Center programs, core subjects like math, English, science and history will be integrated into the courses, said Nesmith.

All students will have individualized learning plans, goals and areas of individualized support from teachers or school staff. They’ll also have access to Empower, the learning management system the school will be using, where students can easily track what their learning goals are and where they stand in their coursework.

The transition to grading based on self-paced mastery of a subject also means students wouldn’t be penalized for taking longer to grasp a topic, Nesmith said.

“If you think about the traditional academic route in school … you take a math test in your algebra class in September … and your final grade is based on your understanding of the concept in September. And even though January rolls around and you understand it, it doesn’t really matter what you understand in January at the end of the semester. Your grade is still based upon your understanding in September,” Nesmith said.

“So now, it’s based upon, ‘What is your most recent knowledge of the subject?’ Because that’s our goal. Trying to grow everyone. If that means every kid gets an A, so be it. That means we grew every kid to an A.”

The goal, said Brophy, is to continue challenging students and preparing them for careers after high school without leaving others behind.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka

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