The new Pathways Innovation Center could begin next school year at less than 25 percent capacity, but district administrators are developing a plan to address enrollment and insist the slow start is predictable for a new program.
PIC, which is in its first year, started this school year with roughly 280 juniors and seniors spending half of their school day at the facility. It currently has more than 220 students enrolled for next year, though officials noted that high school students are still making their schedules and the 2017-18 school year doesn’t start for several months.
The school can handle 1,000 students per day — 500 in the morning and 500 in the afternoon.
“I think a lot of the kids that went there are going back, so it’s worked well for those 200 or so kids,” said Shannon Harris, Natrona County High School principal. “But unfortunately it hasn’t blossomed into double or triple that.”
PIC offers nontraditional classes for 11th- and 12th-graders. Students from one of the Natrona County School District’s high schools go to the school for half a day, attending one of four academies and obtaining hands-on experience in fields like welding, construction and television media. Students spend the other half of the day at their “home school,” like Kelly Walsh or Natrona County.
Pathways cost $24 million to build, which doesn’t include the money spent constructing the new Roosevelt High School, which is attached to PIC.
“I think there’s pressure,” said Walt Wilcox, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “I think there’s pressure on people who show up day-to-day to work. It’s a beautiful facility, and we want to hit full capacity.”
Still, he said that the enrollment figures weren’t entirely surprising. For one, high school students began preparing their schedule and readying for enrollment after the first semester, Wilcox said, so they were deciding whether to attend Pathways a semester into the project.
Secondly and more concerning, Wilcox said that the district has lost a number of high school students in recent weeks. Though Natrona County and most districts around the state have experienced declining enrollment in the wake of the energy bust, Natrona’s enrollment had seen losses only with younger students. Wilcox said that unfortunately, the numbers have started to slip in the high schools.
Wilcox said that districtwide decline meant that proportionally, PIC’s enrollment didn’t take as big a hit as the raw numbers suggest.
Steve Hopkins, the superintendent for Natrona County, said last week that he “wasn’t panicked” about the enrollment figures for the school.
“It’s a long-term commitment that’s growing and evolving as we go along,” he said.
Still, the district is taking steps to improve enrollment and get the most out of PIC. A plan created by high school and district leaders changes the scheduling system at the school while attempting to fill upperclassmen’s schedules and unclog lower-level classes.
Wilcox said that under the plan, which was put together by Natrona County’s high school principals and district officials, PIC would offer its integrated academy classes in the mornings only. The afternoons would be non-integrated classes.
Essentially, if a welding class is full at Kelly Walsh, then a KW student can go to PIC and take the class there in the afternoons without enrolling in the school’s broader program.
That move serves a number of purposes for the district. For one, it puts more students into the building, even if they’re not taking the integrated classes. That, in turn, frees up space in students’ home high schools, Wilcox explained.
Entry-level classes are bogged down because juniors and seniors are taking them, knocking out underclassmen. It creates a cycle of older students going back to take classes they were bumped from, he said. But the new PIC plan could relieve that pressure.
Opening up PIC’s offerings and untying the integrated aspect during the afternoon will mean a wider variety of classes offered, he said. Hopefully, that means more juniors and seniors will take full course loads, which has financial implications for the district.
Currently, he said, roughly 400 students are taking less than four classes a day. Previously, a student had to be in class more than 50 percent of the day to be counted in state funding calculations. But recent legislation hiked that level to 80 percent.
In other words, students who don’t have full schedules could cost the district money.
High schools input
At the district’s last school board meeting, former board member Paula Reid told the board it should’ve expected low enrollment and told trustees not to give up on Pathways.
“You’re starting out with kids that are in 11th and 12th grade,” she said. “Most of them have got everything planned to get themselves to graduation.”
She was pleased that 10th-graders across the district are being encouraged to check out the PIC campus, but she said that other schools across the district could do more to educate students about Pathways.
“Sounds like maybe we need to give a little stronger encouragement to some of the schools, and maybe they should all take a couple of trips” to Pathways, she said.
Harris, the principal of Natrona County High, said that all of NC’s sophomores went to PIC over a two-day period. She noted that the school has also had open houses for parents and students.
In response to Reid’s comments, Wilcox said the district’s high schools are starting to take on more responsibility to educate students about PIC. He said Pathways Principal Chad Sharpe had done a lot of the work on the school independent of the other principals.
“The schools are circling back around and understanding that it can’t be done in isolation. It has to be a combined effort,” Wilcox said.
There was no talk of abandoning Pathways or slashing its workforce. District leaders maintained their support for the project and said it was never going to be an overnight success. Hopkins, the superintendent, said the district was preparing short- and mid-term plans for the school to improve enrollment and to ensure PIC is being fully utilized.
Harris said PIC’s morning academies will likely start next school year with between 220 and 240 students. It’s still less than a quarter full, but she predicted that student interest in the project will increase.
“Anytime you start anything new and innovative, there are some kinks to work out,” she said.