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A Promising Portfolio 

Option schools on the rise give families a choice

click to enlarge JESSIE HYNES
  • Jessie Hynes

Now more than ever, Americans have become consumers — we want a range of options to meet our needs, and education for our children is no exception.

To address this mindset, public school districts across the country have shifted away from the traditional neighborhood school system, opting instead to offer a variety of educational options. The trend has begun to take hold in the Inland Northwest, with a number of nontraditional schools popping up throughout our region in the past decade.

Jeannette Vaughn became the Director of Innovation at Spokane Public Schools in 2013; she has since taken steps to expand the range of educational options in the district. With the addition of various alternative learning programs and schools, SPS is now recognized by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as a "Portfolio District."

"What we've learned from feedback from the community is that what parents really want is different educational options, whether that's because their child has unique interests or talents, or they want them to learn in a different way," Vaughn said.

Portfolio districts aim to create a high-quality, diverse selection of "option" schools that do not follow the traditional educational approach. Option schools are given more flexibility and autonomy to choose their curriculum, manage their budget, and conduct their own hiring, so they can create a specialized environment for students.

Unlike charter schools, option schools are still considered district schools, and all district students have equal access to option schools, typically via a lottery system.

While traditional neighborhood schools work well for most families, Vaughn says many families are interested in schools that offer smaller learning environments, where students can receive more personalized instruction.

The district has completed a gap analysis and researched the offerings of similarly sized portfolio districts. They've modeled much of the SPS portfolio after Denver Public Schools, which has a very successful portfolio district.

Vaughn says SPS has room to grow in the areas of foreign language and the arts, but it's doing well with STEM, which the district will continue to expand along with the Montessori program and project-based learning schools.

The main obstacles in the expansion process are facilities and funding. The district has received some funding from the Gates Foundation, a heavy supporter of school choice. But with a tight budget and most facilities in the district already full of students, expansion is tricky.

"In a district of our size, I believe we should have more options," says Vaughn. "And I think everybody's on board with that and believes that, but we just need to find some funding."

SPS plans to launch a Spanish language immersion school in fall 2017, which would be housed in one of the neighborhood elementary schools. Vaughn says she'd like to eventually see an arts academy and an International Baccalaureate program as well.

"When you're expanding your portfolio, you really need to be intentional," Vaughn says. "You have to really think about your audience and what your needs are."

SPS isn't the only district in the area making moves to diversify; the East Valley School District has also expanded its range of options.

EVSD Superintendent Kelly Shea has spent 29 years working in Eastern Washington public school districts. He says the option schools in his district are rising in popularity, with many at full capacity each year.

"We've come to the realization that one size doesn't necessarily fit all," he said. "The public school system was designed that way in the 20th century, so I think we're realizing that kids come to school with different needs, different expectations and different learning styles."

East Valley School District has five option schools, including a continuous curriculum program, a parent partnership school and an online program.

"It really is about providing the right opportunities for families to choose and that's what we're attempting to do," Shea said. "We've got good things in place, and room for improvement and room to grow."

Applications for all SPS schools will open on enroll.spokaneschools.org in December 2016 for the 2017-18 school year. It is recommended that families apply early for option schools. Contact EVSD at (509) 924-1830 for option school enrollment information.

Spokane Charter Schools

PRIDE Prep

(6-12) a project-based charter school that emphasizes deeper learning, exploration, citizenship and leadership.

Spokane International Academy

(K-8) is a charter school that focuses on allowing students to develop a global worldview, while also setting high standards in academics and character

Spokane Public Schools

Alternative Parent Participation Learning Experience (APPLE ) (K-6) emphasizes parent involvement, independent study and small group activities that follow annual plans developed jointly by teachers, parents and students.

The Community School (9-12) focuses on project-based learning and preparing kids for college and career success with the integration of technology. It's one of 180 New Tech Network schools in the country.

Core Knowledge (K-6) is available to students at Balboa and Longfellow elementary schools. The program blends reading and writing with history, geography, music, visual arts and science in a cumulative curriculum.

The Enrichment Cooperative at Bryant (K-12) is a parent partnership program that provides students with more than 200 courses to enrich their learning, including site-based, remote and online options.

Institute of Science and Technology at North Central & IST Middle School Program (7-12) is a science immersion middle school and high school program, utilizing equipment and lab practices used in research and medical labs worldwide.

NEWTECH Skill Center (11-12) offers career technical education and career training in 20 different fields. The program is completed along with regular schooling at each student's local high school.

Spokane Public Montessori (K-8) offers traditional academic content, along with self-directed learning cycles, personalized learning plans, and an outdoor learning option.

Spokane Virtual Learning (K-12) is an interactive web-based learning program for students K-12, available on a full- or part-time basis.

Mead School District

Riverpoint Academy (9-12) is an award-winning, project-based STEM and entrepreneurial high school that focuses on 21st century skills and problem solving, including learning experiences with professionals in the community.

Central Valley School District

Spokane Valley Tech Skills Center (9-12) focuses on providing students with technical skills for career and college readiness, including internships, worksite learning, and the ability to pursue college credit and state and national certifications.

East Valley School District

InTec (9-11; 9-12 beginning in 2017-18) follows a project-centered curriculum designed to helps students focus on community and global issues with hands-on collaborative learning.

Continuous Curriculum School (K-8) is a high parent-involvement school that follows a year-round calendar of 5-6 weeks on, 1-2 weeks off, with the philosophy that shorter vacation time aids in the retention of learning.

Washington Academy of Arts and Technology K-12) is a parent partnership program that allows students and parents to create their own academic programs combining homeschooling and traditional schooling, with the support of technology.

East Farms STEAM Magnet School (K-6) integrates an art component into the typical STEM curriculum, offering exploratory learning experiences like STEAM-related projects, guest speakers and field trips to prepare students for success in college and careers.

East Valley Online (K-12) offers a flexible, self-paced schedule with high parental involvement, allowing students to follow their own learning styles while being mentored by teachers.

West Valley School District

West Valley City School (5-8) offers project-based learning, hands-on experiments, daily campus jobs for all students and field trips. Students remain in the same teams throughout their entire time at the school.

Coeur d'Alene Public Schools

Lakes Magnet Middle School (6-8) focuses on science, arts and health.

Ramsey Magnet School of Science (K-5) emphasizes hands-on approaches to the study of science, and integrates scientific concepts into its language arts, reading and math curricula.

Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities (K-6) incorporates visual and performing arts into the district curriculum.

Venture Alternative High School (9-12) works to prepare its students for college and the workplace with a selection of professional and technical education programs, including engineering technology, management and graphic design.


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