Pathways

Prostart teacher Calvin Colling talks with students on the day Pathways Innovation Center opened in August 2016. The center is now operating at a fraction of capacity.

FILE, STAR-TRIBUNE

Zoe Janikowski and Virginia Wing are 10th-graders at Natrona County High School. As of 3:30 p.m. Thursday, more than a year after the building was opened, they knew very little about the Pathways Innovation Center.

They said that was disappointing; after the facility — which was designed to provide an alternative for high school students — was described to them, they said they were interested in what it had to offer.

Dillon Chapin, William Eastin and Dawson Rasmussen are also 10th-graders at NC, and they had never heard of PIC. They had no idea it was a 10-minute drive away. One of them asked a reporter if he was talking about the Hathaway Scholarship.

Ninth-grader Darrick Collins said the same thing.

“Barely anyone knows about it,” admitted junior and Pathways student Blake Pool, who was walking with Collins on Thursday afternoon.

Such has been the problem of Pathways. District data shows that 64 percent of 2,418 high school students surveyed were unfamiliar with Pathways offerings. When asked if they were likely to attend, 49 percent of students said they were unsure.

As of Monday, there were 138 students enrolled half-time at PIC. Another 83 were half-timers at the Star Lane Center, which shares Pathways’ campus. The building was designed to hold 500 academy students in the morning and 500 more in the afternoon, officials have said, leaving it dramatically undercapacity in a district that just closed four schools to cut costs.

Why only 36 percent of students said they were familiar with Pathways remains unclear. Natrona County High School principal Shannon Harris said all of her 10th-graders toured the facility last year. But Brad Diller, the principal at Kelly Walsh, added that not all of his sophomores made the trip.

The district held open houses, Superintendent Steve Hopkins added, and schoolwide presentations for each grade level at the high schools. The faculty at PIC has been active, as well.

“I think they were successful,” he said of staff. “Just couldn’t get enough kids to pick it.”

Wrong approach?

The academy-based learning has not worked, officials said. Students have not been attracted to it on a widescale, despite the best efforts of staff at Pathways. While they stopped short of calling it a failure, officials say the current curriculum was, in hindsight, not the correct framework to attract 1,000 students a day to the $24 million building.

“I think those people had great intentions,” Harris said Friday of the district staff who came up with the original idea for PIC. “And they thought that it would draw a lot of kids. The fact of the matter is that it hasn’t done as well as they had hoped. And we need to do about five times better than it is.”

To that effect, the high school leadership team — the principals of the four high schools, plus PIC leader Ron Estes — announced that Pathways and Star Lane would end project-based learning and the academies next year. What Pathways will look like remains unclear, but courses will migrate from NC and Kelly Walsh and the building may expand its certificates and career pathways.

The plan will not only help fill up Pathways, officials say, but it will also relieve overcrowding at the two traditional Casper high schools.

We “just determined that there’s never going to be a demand for four-period, integrated academies for 1,000 kids,” Harris said of officials’ realization after seeing the data. “And we really need to get it more full than it is. The numbers have been declining each cycle that we’ve gone through enrollment there.”

The students just didn’t embrace the program, Harris and Brad Diller, the principal at Kelly Walsh, said. The task now was to find the framework that they would.

But why the district officials who approved the plan didn’t have the correct framework ready, with a good handle on students’ wants and needs, when the building was approved, is unclear. Officials had no firm answer. Harris said they might have assumed that if they build it, students will come.

That has turned out to not be the case. There are 138 students at PIC now, plus 83 more from Star Lane. There were more than 220 students at Pathways at the end of last year, itself a number small enough that the board directed staff last spring to come up with another plan for PIC.

Hopkins said the officials who decided to make Pathways an academy-based institution were working off of community input that was calling for more career readiness and certifications. But the approach was, apparently, not the way to answer that call.

Multiple theories

Harris, Hopkins and Diller offered a number of reasons why Pathways — in its current form — was unsuccessful. Diller said the academies were offered for 11th- and 12th-graders, who are often already settled on their end-of-high school plans and may not have any interest in spending half their time away from their school, in a new program.

Kelly Walsh and Natrona County both have new, “state-of-the-art” facilities, Diller and Harris said. It’s not as if students were stuck at home in “old dilapidated schools,” a setting that might urge a student to leave.

“If you’re happy where you’re at, you’re not looking to move,” Diller said.

Harris said earlier this week that the academy-based learning may have been too much of a change.

In any case, Pathways will be fundamentally revamped at the end of this academic year. What that looks like will be decided in the coming months.

Diller, Harris and other high school leaders will be meeting with the PIC staff — which includes Star Lane instructors — over the second week in November. What will be offered at the facility next year will become more clear as open enrollment approaches and the district and its high schools begin the monumental task of building a catalog of course offerings.

There will be more open houses at Pathways, and the high schools will continue outreach with students to let them know about the facility.

But what classes will be offered there and what will become of the staff at the facility all remain to be seen. But this is the preface, Hopkins said, not the final chapter.

“We’re all committed to having PIC be incredibly successful,” he said. “We’re adjusting the programming and all of the factors necessary around that to draw more students to that great facility.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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