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The New Project-Based Learning High School

Photo courtesy of Camas-Washougal Post-Record

Instead of building a second regular high school, the Camas School District built a Project Based Learning (PBL) high school, named Discovery High School (DHS). Camas High School has more opportunities and more classes, but with project-based Learning, it matters more how you learn; “Not thinking about going to math first period and then science third period but those are together”, says Dr. Snell, the superintendent of the Camas School District. “We have projects as well. It’s not just sitting in class, and it’s more freeform”, informs Kennedy Linton, a freshman at Discovery High School.

Discovery is just another opportunity for students to try and make learning enjoyable, so it works for them. There are tons of other programs that are available to high school students – IAA, Camtech, Magnet, Running Start, or Hayes Freedom. Discovery is just another option.

“We still teach the same standards as Camas and Hayes Freedom High Schools. What sets us apart is that we’re content plus: collaboration, communication both in a group and to the public; we always have an opt for a project for an audience beyond the school, so public speaking is a part of what we do” comments Mr. Smith, the principal at Discovery High School.

Dr. Snell adds that “Some of the reasoning [the Camas School District] had behind [building a PBL vs another Traditional school] were one, to try and continue to diversify the options we have for secondary schools. We want to make sure that if students are interested in learning in a different way, that there are options out there for them. Two, I think the way we are heading with secondary education, we need to be more flexible in how we deliver experiences for students. This school gives us an opportunity to figure out what that might look like.”

Different values in education are what the district was going for, “It was really important that students are a part of a community and contribute in part to the community”. Teacher and students working together. Having students have an impact on what they learn. Not just the teacher mandating what and how the students learn. Teachers are working together in teams to improve the learning environment. Being flexible. Learning about current things. Adjusting the learning plan to talk about current issues. Discovery is a smaller school. At capacity, the school holds 600: 150 students per grade level. Class times are different so the students have more time to work.

“We don’t live by a bell schedule every day. Students meet with their subject area teachers every day and follow somewhat of a schedule, but there are times where teachers will team teach and go deeper with a topic. They have the ability to do that because students are served by a team of teachers.” says Mr. Smith.

To decide on the PBL school they went through an investigative period when they explored all different models of high schools. Then visited lots of schools in the state and went down to California to investigate. They interviewed staff and students there.

It turns out Discovery is having tons of success with the concept of Project-Based Learning, in terms of enrollment. In response to being questioned on the success level of Camas PBLs, Dr. Snell replied, “[DHS is successful so far], but that’s a long-term investment, so we will probably know a lot more about this model when our first graduating class goes out and they’re in college, or they’re in the workforce and they reflect back to us”. Dr Snell is also optimistic about the future enrollment in Discovery and Odyssey, stating “This first year, I think we have about 600+ freshmen in this district and we had 114 choose a new school, so when you talk about 1 out of 6 are choosing that, and they don’t even know what the school looks like yet, that’s pretty amazing.”

The idea to build a project-based learning high school was made off of public feedback. When asked about the reasoning behind building a PBL school versus a traditional school, Principal Aaron Smith of Discovery High School stated, “We knew we had a capacity issue at the high school”. Smith followed  “[The Community] wanted something that was an additional smaller option that was more flexible, more problem, real-world application and that was a smaller school. That led us on to Project-Based Learning.”

Discovery High School also offers separate electives in digital fabrication, woodworking, and metalworking, that help with projects “where building something is a piece of solving that problem”, adds Principal Smith.

Students shouldn’t solely count out attending Discovery High School because it’s a PBL school. Doing school projects gets a bad rap, however, “Project-Based Learning can be engaging for any type of student. We have students that run the whole gamma, just like all schools”, concludes Principal Smith.

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