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Students sit in one of many gathering spaces during the first day of school at Pathways Innovation Center in Aug. 2016. Low enrollment has prompted school officials to move away from the problem-based learning approach offered at Pathways and Star Lane Center, which is located on the same campus.

It’s been nearly four weeks since the Natrona County School District announced it would be moving away from academy- and problem-based learning of the Pathways Innovation and Star Lane centers, and parents are still looking for answers.

“I’m here tonight — again — addressing the issue of problem-based learning,” Kendsey Huffer told the school board at its bi-monthly meeting Monday night. She has two children at Star Lane, which shares a campus with Pathways students. “I realize that’s not on the schedule tonight, and I had hoped to come a little bit more informed. I’ve been a little bit frustrated these last couple weeks, as I feel I’ve been asking questions that have largely gone unanswered.”

Three weeks before, more than a dozen parents, staff and students lined up to ask the school board not to end the unique offerings of Star Lane and Pathways, which provide non-traditional learning options for high school students. Many seemed unaware that the decision had already been made earlier that day.

Hours before that meeting, during which the school board voted 8-1 to close four Natrona County schools, members met with the principals of the district’s four high schools, the highest-ranking administrator at Pathways, and other district officials, including Superintendent Steve Hopkins. They essentially decided to gut the curriculums within Pathways.

Attendance at Pathways remains low, despite a significant revamp the previous spring that isolated the academy approach to the mornings. The building could house 500 students in each the afternoon and morning, but it started 2016 — its first year — at around 250. As of mid-October, it had 138 Pathways part-timers, plus 83 more for Star Lane.

The high school leaders — the four principals, plus PIC leader Ron Eastes — have been given charge of Pathways’ future. The low enrollment showed that students simply weren’t interested in the academy- or problem-based approach, officials said, and the curriculum within Pathways would need to adjust itself — drastically — to more fully utilize the $25 million building.

Though district data shows that two-thirds of high school students were unfamiliar with PIC’s offerings, the plan was agreed upon. What, exactly, the new Pathways will look like is unclear. The only certainty is it will not operate as it has in the past.

That’s left supporters of academy- and problem-based learning frustrated. Huffer, whose son also spoke to the school board Monday, said she wanted to know where — if anywhere — the curriculum would be offered in the district next year.

She said she had heard from people within the district that problem-based learning would be offered somehow, somewhere in Natrona County. But “nobody seems to have any idea what that’s going to look like,” she told the board.

While she was trying to be patient while the district and board worked, “the answer ‘I don’t know’ is not good enough” when it comes to her children’s education, she said. Huffer was aware that the district was facing difficult times financially but wondered how the changes would save any money.

Board response

Normally, school board members don’t respond to questions raised during the public comment period of their meetings. Board chairman Kevin Christopherson acknowledged as much after Huffer and others who defended problem-based learning and Star Lane finished speaking.

But given the confusion, he asked board member Toni Billings, who chairs one of the board’s subcommittees, to give a broad response to the concerns.

Billings started by explaining that the low enrollment, plus low test scores, were concerns of the board when it came to Pathways and Star Lane.

“I think part of the frustration of ‘there is no answers’ is that part of the proposal is re-looking at enrollment opportunities at that particular building,” she said. “ ... Problem-based learning is not going away in our district, or integrated classes. Will it be exactly the same as it has been? No.”

She noted Pathways as a facility was not closing, that the low enrollment at PIC and Star Lane meant the student-to-teacher ratio was much lower than at Natrona County and Kelly Walsh high schools, both of which are experiencing overcrowding issues.

“If we were able to maximize those teachers’ abilities to interact with students, there would be cost-savings,” she continued.

Still, Billings could provide no concrete answers. She said she believed there would be some integrated courses with problem-based learning. High school leaders were still meeting with staff at Pathways, she said, and many of the concerns for parents would be answered as the district’s enrollment guide is created over the coming months.

“I wish we could give you answers now, but we don’t have answers,” board member Clark Jensen said at the end of the meeting. “For all of those questions and more, please be patient. We’re listening to you, we’re doing the best we can do.”

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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