Updated Dec. 29 at 9:30 p.m.
The Orcas Alternative Student-Initiated Studies (OASIS) program has blossomed this year, with about 100 students enrolled in the Orcas Island School District’s K-8 program, and an additional two dozen in OASIS High School.
The OASIS High School staff, led by Marta Branch, includes Linda Sullivan, Denise O’Toole, Don Weston, Corey Wiscomb and Kathleen Collister. Mandy Randolph works with the K-8 OASIS students. At the Dec. 15 OISD board meeting, the following teachers were added to the OASIS instructional staff:
- Jill Sherman – CTE Applied Math class
- Brett McFarland – CTE Applied Math class
- Kimberly Freeman – OASIS K-8 teacher
- Bruce Orchid – OASIS K-8 teacher
- Sarah Ross-Forster – OASIS K-8 teacher
The Orcas Alternative for Student Initiated Studies (OASIS) School was created in 2001 by a group of parents working in partnership with the district’s administration, based upon the Washington State rules for Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) programs. In 2007, the OASIS High School program was established to provide an Alternative High School option for Orcas students.
Last year, the OASIS K-8 Site Council was formed as an administrative advisory committee dedicated to supporting and improving the OASIS K-8 program. Barbara Kline, OISD Superintendent, said, “They really worked hard to ensure that the program remains flexible enough to meet the needs of every learning style.”
OISD Superintendent Barbara Kline attributes the growth in the K-8 OASIS program (up from about 30 last year) to the work of the Site Councils which elected officials in the summer of 2008. The parent council members — Donna Laslo, Michel Vekved, Andria Hagstrom, Beth Reigel, and Susan McCaull – worked with Superintendent Barbara Kline and former Principal Tom Gobeske as well as several teaching staff members to create a handbook for incoming families. In announcing the new handbook, ALE Site Council Chair, Donna Laslo noted, “With the guidance of the school board and the staff, we’ve been able to create a communication protocol that really streamlines and strengthens the whole program.”
Site Council Treasurer and ALE parent, Michel Vekved, noted, “ALE is a great option for a lot of families who want to support the school on some level, but want to play more of a role in directing their child’s education.”
The Site Council developed a handbook last year and helped set policy approved by the school board and formally adopted this fall. The policy details student performance, staff evaluation, monthly review, parental responsibilities, district supervision, and graduation requirements and reimbursement in compliance with state regulations.
According to Kline, OASIS’ remarkable growth this past year was accomplished through word of mouth from the Site Council parents who were happy with the program, and connected with home-schooling consortia throughout the state. Many of those parents and students were unhappy with policy changes and the teacher/student ratio in their district and called Orcas, wanting to switch.
Kline didn’t realize how many families were looking for a school district to work with: “We’ve had to grow faster than we thought we would,” she says. “We’re using the handbook, reviewing rules to make sure we’re doing everything within the law and to support parents at home.” The teachers’ learning curve has been steep, Kline says, and a recurring question is “How does the district address off-island and out-of-district students?” OASIS has enrolled students from Lopez and San Juan Islands, and from as far away as Tacoma and Twisp.
“As long as we have the handbook [which relies on state laws], we can try that,” says Kline.
Weekly meetings between individual students, their parents and Orcas district teachers to implement lesson plans are a requirement of the program, as is an in-depth monthly review. Given the accessibility of the internet, these personal meetings can be done via telephone or internet conferencing.
“Homeschooling can be fairly lonely,” says Kline. “It’s helpful to have an individual who works with you and helps you to the next step.” She adds that online studies are not easy; students have to do every assignment before progressing, they can’t “miss” an assignment and continue in their classwork.
In OASIS K-8 the parent-teacher of a child works with an OASIS teacher to develop a learning plan and activities to achieve the Grade Level Expectations (GLE) defined by the state. The teacher must identify the skills the student is learning and relate them to the state learning goals.
There is weekly contact with the parent and teacher to work on plans, special classes and materials. A per-student stipend is awarded by the State Office of Public Instruction; it varies by grade level and size of the high school. Reimbursement for expenses associated with classes, curriculum materials, tutoring and other items is available to ALE students through the stipend.
The district pays for the teacher, and the Orcas student-teacher ration is less than 30 students per teacher; many districts are higher than that, says Kline. “The District does make some money with each student and that goes into parental support and staffing.”
Kline says, “The attitude of the district and the teachers is respectful of what parents are doing: we support you in this.”
While OASIS enrollment has now frozen, Kline says, “We’ll take in new students and families, but there are reasons why we don’t want to grow too big. We’ll take a deep breath and slow down so we can control growth, know exactly what we’re doing, and be careful.”
Some of the issues that remain to be fleshed out are the sharing of classes among “regular” and “alternative” students; and the transition of homeschooled students from middle to high school, “to make an informed decision with good information ahead of them,” says Kline.
Kline says, “It is fortuitous that OASIS enrollment has saved a lot of programs this district already has. There’s no question but that the extra students made a difference to our budget this year. I knew if we did a good job with our alternative schools we could attract more families.
“We need to do a good job: we want to increase the enrollment and employ our teachers, and the most important thing is: We do an excellent job of helping parents support students.” K-12 OASIS gives options for parents, says Kline, “something we should always be doing.” In addition, she says the alternative education program is good professional development for teachers, moving in to a different role.” She praises OISD teachers for “doing an excellent job.”
“We embrace the support we can provide to parents to educate their kids in an alternative fashion,” says Kline.
OASIS students K-12 are all signed in to the public school’s “alternative arm with individual options and control of what, when and how you study,” explains Kline. It’s part of the public school, an “option to help you educate your child.”
“That’s what we do: we educate.”