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Strong turnout for STEM school meeting

SHSD exploring option to reopen Columbia City School as magnet academy


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - St. Helens School District Superintendent Mark Davalos, right, speaks at a public meeting to discuss a proposed magnet school that would focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at the Columbia City School on Tuesday, Oct. 29.The superintendent of the St. Helens School District made his pitch for a specialized magnet school in Columbia City and fielded questions from community members at a well-attended public meeting Tuesday, Oct. 29, in the Columbia City School gymnasium.

Mark Davalos said he believes a STEM school — focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education — catering to high-performing students would help prepare children who attend it for high school, college, and employment in the high-tech job sector and other fields. It would also benefit other schools and students, he suggested.

“As we increase and learn from this rigorous opportunity, we will also transpose what we learn over to the other schools to help teachers try new methods and ways of increasing the interest and the accomplishment of kids at all of our schools,” Davalos told the audience of about three dozen people.

The Columbia City School, which Davalos wants to reopen as a STEM magnet school, was closed last year by the St. Helens School District to save money. Davalos praised the facility and said he has been looking for a way to return students to the school for months.

Davalos’ plan hinges on the district securing outside grants to cover the costs of setting up the new school. Some members of the public who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, including former school board member Matt Freeman, questioned whether that was realistic.

“So you’re looking at raising $150,000 to $300,000 in the next two months?” Freeman asked.

Davalos replied, “Or enough of it that the board would feel that it’s something they want to encourage and support going forward.” He said the district could also hold off and open the magnet school in 2015 instead of next year.

Columbia City resident Ray Clift, a teacher in the Longview School District in Washington, said he supports the general concept but is concerned about the district’s finances. The school board recently restored all but one day of classes cut to trim down the budget, and although the district has rehired many teachers laid off two years ago, staffing levels remain low and class sizes at some schools are in the low 30s.

“Your teachers have not had any increases in pay,” Clift said. “You are running a huge deficit. How do you bring on a new program when those things are happening? I’m not seeing how it’s going to happen.”

“I can only say that, having been in this business for more than 30 years, that just sometimes you can’t wait for the dollars to show up to still do what’s best for kids,” Davalos said. “Part of not having enough money is that we’re also falling behind in the kinds of instruction that we should be moving into.”

Other attendees agreed, suggesting that the district could tap into new resources by pursuing STEM education. Clift said he liked that idea.

Under Davalos’ plan, if the school district lines up needed grants, Columbia City School would reopen for fourth- through sixth-grade students next year or the year after as a magnet school focusing on STEM concepts while also providing a general education. The year after opening, the school would add third and seventh grades, followed by eighth grade and possibly second grade as well.

Davalos said operating costs for the school would not be significantly different than for any other school in the district.