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Students sit in a gathering space during the first day of school at the new Pathways Innovation Center in Casper. Enrollment numbers were underwhelming in the school's first year.

File, Star-Tribune

The Natrona County School District will completely overhaul its approach to Pathways Innovation Center, moving away from the project-based learning upon which it was founded as the facility enters its second year with just 138 students.

“The number of students selecting the program ... has dropped significantly in the Pathways academies this year, and we don’t ever see it reaching 1,000, for sure,” Natrona County High School principal Shannon Harris told district officials Monday afternoon.

Last year, there were 224 students who spent half their day at Pathways, a facility that can house 500 students in the morning and 500 more in the afternoon.

Under a proposal that Harris and the other county high schools’ principals presented Monday, PIC will move away from its original program of integrated academies and project-based learning. Courses now offered at Natrona County and Kelly Walsh high schools — like welding or agriculture — would be “migrated” to PIC. Officials will continue to support certifications — like engine repair and CPR — and “explore” adding more, such as welding or physical therapy technician, to try to bring more students to PIC.

The $24 million building is not currently at risk for closure, a spokeswoman said.

Effectively, Pathways will allow Casper high school students to take courses away from their regular school, which may not have the space. For instance, Kelly Walsh is overcapacity by nearly 230 students, a trend that officials said won’t reverse anytime soon. Pathways can act as an auxiliary space.

Additionally, Harris said, PIC had a superior agriculture space than her school.

It’s a marked change for PIC that’s indicative of its apparent lack of popularity among students. Harris said after the meeting that she didn’t know why PIC’s academy approach hadn’t caught on.

“Maybe that it’s just so different,” she said.

Board members lamented that Pathways would not become what they had envisioned when they approved the project several years ago.

“The statistics are sobering,” said Clark Jensen.

“I feel a little bad this didn’t materialize,” added Rita Walsh.

On top of the significant enrollment struggles, district data shows that Pathways is laboring academically. Its overall performance level for 2017 was “unacceptable,” and its students failed to meet performance levels in all measured areas.

Harris said during the meeting those low scores hurt her school. She pointed to NCHS’s test score dip and suggested they were indicative of the academic issues associated with PIC.

“I had 78 students who left my school in a program in 11th grade,” she said. “Then I looked at the drops in assessment results. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, those are the biggest drops. I’ve been in education for 31 years and those are the biggest drops I’ve ever seen.’”

She dug into the data and saw the largest drops in English and reading, which are the subjects that those 78 students were taking at PIC or Star Lane. The smallest drop was in math, she said, a subject those students were still learning at Natrona County High.

“Most problem-based and project-based learning doesn’t focus on the foundation that kids need, they just turn them loose and say, ‘Go do a presentation,’” she said. “But they’re missing those foundational skills.”

She said the average English ACT score for those students was a 15.7, a number that drew gasps from board members.

The plan unveiled Monday is at least the second wholesale change PIC has undertaken in recent months in light of its low enrollment. The building can hold 1,000 students but last year it had only 250 high-schoolers. As of late last week, those numbers appear to have dropped even further: A district document shows that there are only 138 students who attend PIC for half-day courses.

Another 83 attend the Star Lane Center, which as of this academic year shares a campus with Pathways, for half the day. Last year, district officials decided to shutter Star Lane’s previous building.

In June, the principals for Casper’s three high schools — KW, NC and Roosevelt — met with the district board to discuss their first plan for righting the Pathways ship. Those three administrators, as well as new PIC leader Ron Estes, formed the leadership team overseeing Pathways. They said they would offer academies in the mornings, and the afternoons would be devoted to individual courses that previously were packaged together.

At the time, officials thought that would allow students at the other high schools to attend single classes at Pathways, loosening up the structure and attracting more students. That apparently has not come to pass.

That plan also had aimed to spread the word further about Pathways and the courses available within it. But a district survey of 2,418 students showed that only 23 percent said they were likely to attend Pathways as a junior or senior, and 64 percent said they were not familiar with the building’s offerings.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann


Education and Health Reporter

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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