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The West Valley School District is seeking public input on a plan to create an innovation school at the high school's freshman campus. Elementary school students are now attending class there, as the district rebuilds Apple Valley and Summitview elementary schools.

A proposed “innovation school” for West Valley students with a flexible learning environment received widespread praise during a Tuesday evening community forum.

But community members also raised concerns about the district’s long-term plans for students and school buildings.

Dozens of teachers, parents and community members gathered in the Wide Hollow STEAM Elementary School library Tuesday to hear a proposal the board is considering, which would permanently move ninth graders to the high school campus and transform the freshman campus.

The school would become West Valley’s “innovation school,” which would offer a self-paced learning environment for students in grades 7-12. It would allow flexibility for students who struggled with material, had responsibilities in their home life that made a traditional school schedule challenging, or who outpaced classroom curriculum, for example.

All courses in a normal classroom setting take 180 days to complete, Superintendent Michael Brophy said. Then, you either pass or fail. With the innovation program, he said, students could move on to the next course if they wrap up early.

The program would also be standards-based, meaning students would be required to meet specific standards set by the state, but would never fail, instead building upon what they had mastered.

Other proposed features of the school include:

  • Individualized learning plans based on students’ needs and goals, from support with mental health needs to work concerns
  • An application process with a committee determining admissions. Students could continue through graduation at the innovation school, if they desire
  • Fewer time constraints
  • Support for graduation pathways and career preparation
  • The ability to engage in sports, electives and assemblies alongside students at the districts middle and high school

The proposal is possible due to expanded graduation pathways that were approved by lawmakers in Olympia in 2019.

The district anticipates about 300 students would attend school through the program, alleviating swelling at the middle and high school level. State funding for each student attending the program would be available, bringing in about $8,000 a year per student, as is the case in traditional school settings, said Brophy.

Why now?

The consideration comes amid the construction of two replacement schools for Apple Valley and Summitview elementaries.

In 2019, voters approved a 20-year, $59 million bond measure matched with $12 million in state funds to replace the two elementary schools.

During development, expected to be complete during the 2021-22 school year, the roughly 660 students from the elementary schools are attending class at the freshman campus, just east of West Valley High School on Zier Road and 96th Avenue. Ninth grade students are attending school with the rest of the high school students.

Feedback from students in grades nine through 12, parents and staff resulted in a committee led by high school Principal Ben McMurray deciding to keep the freshmen at the high school long-term.

That opened up an opportunity to use the campus to meet the needs of students who were slipping through the cracks or could be better served, he said.

Community feedback

Community members showed overwhelming support for the new program, which many said would help retain students who were considering dropping out or transferring out of West Valley. A petition by district teachers in favor of the proposal was presented to the board.

Kent Wilkinson, a science teacher at the high school who has taught in the district for over 30 years, said the program would help a growing number of students who were bright but didn’t fit into the traditional school setting.

“This is kind of the best option we’ve seen in years … I’m tired of seeing kids slip through the cracks,” he said.

Kristin Johnson, a teacher in the district, said the proposal reminded her of a night program the district offered years ago to meet the varying needs of students, which she taught in. She said the program showed promise and would be easier to implement than it might seem.

But amid the enthusiasm, there were also concerns.

One district staff member noted the financial uncertainty of the program, especially in light of district budget cuts last spring that threatened staffing positions and led to a $1 million dip into district reserve funds.

Michael Moore, a district parent who became involved in the district’s long-term facilities plan in early 2017, expressed concern that the district was making new plans for programs without finalizing facility goals.

“I’m not necessarily against this plan, but I do not think we should continue to plan without a plan,” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible to approve this without knowing what we’re going to do from a facilities standpoint overall five years down the road, 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road. It’s been far too long without a coherent vision, strategy and plan from a facilities standpoint, and it must change. It just has to change and it has to be a priority.”

Jozette Mora, another district parent, echoed him, asking why the district didn’t consider vacating the ninth grade building to make room for more elementary school students, rather than asking the community to approve the bond to replace Apple Valley and Summitview just to announce “a big vacant building.” She said she worried about losing community trust in the district, if the proposal is approved.

“As a community member and as a district parent who worked hard on that bond in both capacities, I feel a little bit duped,” she said.

Next steps

The proposal comes as the board also is considering reconfiguration of grade school students.

Ryan Mathews, a district parent and the community representative for the district’s facilities committee, said Wednesday the committee previously requested that the district provide a long-term vision for things like grade configuration so that the committee could “pick up and move forward.”

He said a decision on K-12 grade configuration, accounting for the new elementary schools was the first step, followed by re-doing boundaries as necessary. Then the committee could move forward with a long-term plan.

The board is expecting updated proposals for both reconfiguration and the innovation school during its Feb. 25 board meeting, at which point it may make decisions on each.

If approved, the innovation program would be expected to open in the 2021-22 school year.

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