Education à la carte

Spokane Public Schools veers away from one-size-fits-all to offer its students more choices

North Central High School
North Central High School

In one sense in the world of education, "consistency" is today's catchphrase. At Spokane Public Schools, the catchphrase is "options."

In January, Spokane Public Schools joined the "Portfolio School District Network," a group of 43 like-minded districts that offer each other resources and advice about how schools can offer as many options to parents and students as possible.

There still are major logistical kinks. Right now, transportation outside school boundaries must be entirely parent-provided. Yet many parents — especially low-income ones — don't have that option. "We believe from an equity standpoint, we really need to provide transportation, but it comes at a huge cost," says Jeannette Vaughn, Spokane Public Schools' director of innovative programs.

In December, Spokane Public Schools will launch a new online application system, where parents can apply for the vast array of different types of schools and programs. Here's a preview of what to expect.

Institute of Science & Technology

Location: North Central High SchoolGrade levels: 9-12 Perfect for: Future Nobel Prize winners

Thanks to the efforts of science teacher Randy James, North Central has long had unique programs where high school students conduct actual science — like deconstructing the DNA of 10,000-year-old ancient bison — for real college credit. This summer, construction will be completed on a new science facility, with six state-of-the-art science labs and three general classrooms. James hopes the labs will be used in the evenings by graduate students and Ph.D.s doing their own original research.

North Central is even researching the idea of starting high school early for a select class of seventh graders who'd like to take advantage of that research.


Location: The former

Havermale buildingGrade levels: 1-6, may

expand to K-7. in 2015Perfect for: Kids who

learn through play

In the age of standardized testing, some parents may find Montessori a breath of fresh air. Montessori focuses on allowing students to discover and explore ideas and questions on their own, instead of feeding them answers. The district raised the ire of some parents this spring when it combined two Montessori schools into a single central location, but district officials say the majority of parents have stuck with the program.


Location: Franklin and

Garfield ElementaryGrade levels: 1-6, though it may expand to kindergarten in the future Perfect for: Children of

hyper-involved parents

Most classrooms have only one or two adults to deal with a horde of kids. But with the APPLE (Alternate Parent Participation Learning Experience) program, parent volunteers ensure there are always four or five helping hands. Ideally, it combines the expertise of public school teachers with the direct parental involvement of homeschooling. Parents are required to volunteer a minimum of 90 hours each year, and report those volunteer hours.

The Community School

Location: The former

Bancroft building, N. SpokaneGrade levels: 9-12 Perfect for: Students who struggle in conventional classrooms

At one time a school intended for expelled or failing students, the Community School has become something much more. Today, it's centered on "project-based learning." Students find a subject they're passionate about, then create big projects exploring that idea. The skills students need for graduation are woven into the fabric of those projects.

On Track Academy

Location: Next to Shaw Middle

School and the Skill CenterGrade levels: 11-12 Perfect for: Students behind on credits

Credit retrieval programs can sometimes feel a bit cold. Not here. Teachers sit down one-on-one with students to help them make up courses they previously failed. This year, On Track plans to partner more closely with the Skill Center next door to offer career and technical education courses.

NEWTECH Skill Center

Location: Next to Shaw Middle

School and On Track AcademyGrade levels: 9-12, mostly 11-12 Perfect for: Students who want to become handy, not just knowledgeable

Sometimes, even high schoolers know what they want to do with their life. The Skill Center can give them a head start.

The Northeast Washington Technical Skill Center is run by Spokane Public Schools, but draws students from 11 districts. They spend half a day at their home school and the rest of at the Skill Center, learning practical techniques crucial for a slew of industries.

It's not just about auto shop. There are programs for 20 different fields, including computer game programming, construction technology, cyber security, robotics, welding, criminal justice, dentistry and cosmetology.

"We try to cover just about every sector," says Director Will Sarett. This fall, the Skill Center will add a biomedical application class and a twilight class, from 3 to 5:30 pm, on natural resources in the urban setting.

Core Knowledge schools

Location: Balboa and Longfellow ElementaryGrade levels: 1-5Perfect for: Students who want to learn lots early on

Only two elementary schools in Spokane are using the Core Knowledge curriculum, centered on providing in-depth understanding early on. Even before they know how to read, students might be learning about the cycles of nature, the War of 1812, or westward expansion. Topics are revisited in future grades and infused throughout all subjects. "There's not a separate social studies time. Not a separate science time," Balboa Principal Heather Awbery says. "It's all completely integrated."

PRIDE Prep (Fall 2015)

Possible location: Downtown SpokanePerfect for: Kids who want more time to learnGrade levels: 6-12

Some districts fought tooth and nail against laws legalizing charter schools. Spokane Public Schools took a different tack, helping a former Garry Middle School principal create her own charter school.

PRIDE Prep will have a longer school day and school year, giving students more time to pursue their interests. "We'll try to design it around what kids' passions are," founder Brenda McDonald says. The school hopes to provide a laptop or tablet for every student and will require students to take additional math and science courses. The school also may partner with local businesses for internships.  

Dual Language School (Fall 2015, proposed)

Possible locations: South Hill and North SpokanePerfect for: Future global citizensGrade level: Kindergarten, initially

There are still plenty of hoops to jump through, but after hearing intense parent interest, the district hopes to launch two schools centered on language immersion. English would be spoken half the time in one model being considered, and a foreign language would be spoken in the other half. One language will be Spanish; the other hasn't yet been decided on. ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...