Students at Pride Prep were given an unusual assignment this spring.
Help design a high school. From scratch.
“These kids are really responsible for building a school and a school culture from the ground up,” said Principal Brenda McDonald. “It will be interesting just to see what they decide is important.”
For the last two years, Pride Prep, one of Spokane’s two charter schools, has been a middle school. But starting this fall students will be able to attend a new high school – Innovation High. There will be 100 kids in the inaugural freshman class.
Those incoming freshman will be responsible for designing the the workings of the new school.
For instance, freshman Braden McLaughlin, 14, said he helped decide the sport team’s uniform color. McLaughlin is a member of student government.
“We got to decide a lot of things like uniform and policies for our school, kind of how we wanted it to work,” he said.
When Kandi Alent, 14, considers going to a traditional high school, she realizes how much influence she has over the creation of Innovation High, she said.
“It would kind of be like fitting into a mold that is already been made,” she said of going to a different school. “This way we get to make our own mold.”
Between the middle school and high school there will be 400 students, McDonald said. Last school year there were 240. The school has 33 employees. There will be six high school teachers. The high school will add a grade each year.
“The kids are super excited,” McDonald said.
The majority of the incoming freshman class have been at the charter school since sixth grade. The addition of the high school also raises expectations, McDonald said. Students depend on their high school diploma, transcript and GPA to move on to college.
“The stakes are sure higher in high school,” she said. “You can’t be experimenting. We had the luxury in middle school to kind of try some things and see what works.”
The first two years of Pride Prep’s existence have been tumultuous.
Days after the Spokane’s two charter schools opened in 2015, the state supreme court ruled them unconstitutional. Several months later the schools were adopted by the Mary Walker School District, in Springdale. Then in March 2016 the Legislature passed a bill that fixed underlying funding problems by using money from the state lottery.
In its first year Pride Prep had few rules and no tradition or settled-upon procedures. In fact, there weren’t even classes in a traditional sense.
Instead students enrolled in classes that interested them, regardless of their age. Everyone worked in a large open room. Classes were separated into pods.
Starting this fall the middle school classes will have walls.
The school will also be a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate program. That will add structure to the school, McDonald said.
McDonald said the open classrooms had some benefits but also prompted older kids to act less mature.
“Part of our shifting is just to support kids a little differently in terms of where they are developmentally,” she said.
The IB program will also help staff work with different groups of students.
“You’ll see more consistency in teaching style, I think,” she said of the new IB programs.
Although the high school will continue to be project-based, students will receive a transcript and a GPA with the goal of getting students to attend college.
Incoming freshman who attended eighth grade at Pride Prep had to decide whether to continue at the school or not, McDonald said.
“Some of them that were trying to choose between traditional (high school) and Innovation (High) really felt like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to start something and be part of a startup,” she said.
That convinced many of the students to go to the high school.
“For the most part they wrote the student handbook,” McDonald said.
Mostly the students drafted policies that McDonald expected. However sometimes they diverged.
“They are really edgy about misuse of technology,” McDonald said. “They want really clear consequences for that and they think that if kids misuse technology they should have to publicly display their technology when they are online.”
That’s not something she would have chosen. Or predicted.
But McLaughlin and Alent said because technology is such an integral part of the school – students use iPads for the majority of their work – there needed to be strict boundaries.
“We had a lot of kids goofing around on stuff and not getting work done,” McLaughlin said. “We felt that there really needed to be strong discipline.”
In 2012, voters passed Initiative 1240, making Washington the 42nd state to approve charter schools. The measure provided for the opening of as many as 40 charter schools within five years. The first opened in the fall of 2014; there are now 11.
“We have an opportunity to have a say in the high school,” McLaughlin said.