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High school, high expectations: Just-opened freshman campus brings new approach to newest students

New tech and construction (above, the newly constructed commons area) at the Freshman Campus are meant to help ninth graders succeed.  - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
New tech and construction (above, the newly constructed commons area) at the Freshman Campus are meant to help ninth graders succeed.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

As Mount Si High School’s new freshman campus filled with excited ninth graders on the first day of school last week, so did parts of the main campus. At least 80 freshmen, many musicians, had their first classes as high school students on the main campus, where band and choir programs are consolidated.

“First period is freshman band and freshman choir,” explained Mount Si High School Principal John Belcher, and buses stop first at the main campus, so music students can just get out at the main campus, where teachers have agreed to start band and choir a few minutes early. They end a few minutes earlier, too, so students can catch the bus afterward to the freshman campus.

That solution is in line with school goals to minimize student travel between the two buildings. So was the second-period adjustment.

“We started realizing that we have one math class that some freshman really wanted...construction geometry, so applying the concepts of math in wood shop,” said Belcher. “That was first and second period… so now we knew we needed to have travel after second period. So what we did there is offer a variety of other freshman classes here on campus.”

After second period, the rest of the students get on a bus, head over to the freshman campus and, for the most part, stay there the rest of the day. Instead, the teachers will do most of the traveling. While 11 staffers will be full-time at the freshman campus, 22 other teachers will have at least one class at the freshman campus.

STEM-ified

The schedule wrangling is an example of how Belcher, Freshman Campus Principal Vernie Newell and staff have worked hard to develop a schedule that met students’ needs without making sacrifices.

“We’re not taking anything away,” said Newell.

Instead, they are adding classes, and, in a way, acting as “a lighthouse” Newell said, for a new way of educating students.

Belcher says the district is offering more honors programs and “we’ve added AP for freshmen, which is not the norm out there.”

And students have had a huge response, Newell said. “Enrollment really caught us by surprise… If you look at the honors biology class alone, we have one teacher teaching a full day of that.”

Belcher says “It’s one-to-one, STEM-ified, more rigor, higher expectations for every kid, and more supports for every kid.”

The STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math component of the freshman campus was a challenge to implement in part because of parents’ concerns about the curriculum offerings. Belcher insisted on this requirement, though, because “We feel that sort of learning is going to help every kid,” he said.

For example, the STEM version of PE offered at the freshman campus will not be the “balls and competitions” style of traditional PE classes, but a technology-based wellness class that enables students to work more independently.

“The beauty of this program is that, even if you’re an athlete and super fast, you’ll still have to make your gains every week,” Belcher noted.

High expectations abound at the freshman campus, where Newell has set a goal of essentially no Fs for students, because, Belcher says, “with freshmen, once they fail, they disappear.”

It’s not about teaching differently, but about learning who the students are, and finding out which ones need more supports.

“I think the mantra we’ve been using is ‘it’s not what you expect, but what you accept,’” Newell explained. “So we’re asking a lot more of teachers, fostering stronger relationships with students to really motivate and inspire them to do more…. not just get over the bar. “

Staff is fully on board, as well, Newell said. In working with the teachers at the freshman campus, most of whom asked to be placed there, Newell said he’s seen a strong desire from them “to help students be more engaged in their high school experience.”

Support will also be structural, in the form of the new STEM lab at the freshman campus, and the recent creation of a giant kitchen classroom with six or seven complete kitchen units, for the perennial freshman favorite Creative Cooking class. There’s also what Belcher calls “a massive technology influx” at the freshman campus this year, which he hopes will follow the students to the main campus in the coming years.

Going wireless

In recent months, district executive director of instructional technology Jeff Hogan said the district added about $200,000 in technology upgrades to the new campus. These included 100 new iPads, and 128 new Chromebooks, plus infrastructure upgrades to handle the extra load on the district’s network.

“Over the summer we added much more wireless capacity to handle the increase in wireless devices in every room,” Hogan wrote in an e-mail.

With the teacher contract recently resolved and one week down, the freshman campus is, and will remain, a going concern.

Although the district has spent several months this summer in focus groups discussing a potential high school remodel to reabsorb the students, both principals, as well as Superintendent Joel Aune, remain fully committed to the freshman campus.

“I think we’re going to see some immediate impact in positive bumps for students,” Aune said, adding that “Most, if not all of the board members are on board with that right now, the idea of the freshman campus…. we are in this for the long haul.”

 

The location of it, though, is the question. Four of the five School Board Directors have spoken in support of a freshman campus concept, which is included in “Option A” of the proposed high school remodel designs, but as a freshman-only section in an overall building.

 

That change defeats many of the goals originally presented by the citizen High School Program Study committee, which lobbied for a separate campus to give the freshman class its own identity and a chance to blend as a group coming from three separate schools; strengthen teacher-student connections; establish peer-to-peer mentoring; and enable just-in-time interventions for struggling students.

"We feel that separating the freshmen, having that separation is an important element of what we're trying to do," Aune said.

"We wouldn't do this if we didn't think it was a great move," said Belcher. "Ideally, they'll (the school board) give us four years. No, ideally, they'll give us 12."

 

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