In a changing world, it’s become necessary for educators to find new ways to connect with students in the pursuit of learning. Students that thrive in the classroom might fall off a cliff academically if confined to virtual learning. Then again, students that have historically struggled with learning in a public setting might see the light through alternative programs that offer flexibility.
Although these approaches to learning have been developing through the years, they took an accelerated step forward when the COVID-19 pandemic hit 14 months ago. All of a sudden, students were forced into distance learning and families had to make decisions about what might be best for their children.
Philomath Academy, a K-12 alternative school, became a popular option with enrollment figures far exceeding pre-pandemic estimates. Even though most students have returned to classroom learning, there are others who discovered that the new school’s teaching methods hit home and produced desirable results.
Beth Edgemon, Philomath Academy counselor, believes flexibility carries a lot of weight among enrolled students.
“We have families that have needed to leave the area during this year but their students have still been able to continue the same quality of work through our program,” Edgemon said.
Edgemon can speak to that situation on a personal level.
“Even my own child did the academy from the beginning of the year and she was able to travel with her grandparents in their RV across the country while still doing her schoolwork, so she got to have some different experiences,” she said.
It’s those different experiences outside of a traditional school that appeal to some families and students. Edgemon believes that Philomath Academy can be “the perfect school for them.”
“I’ve had tons of kids over the years where the box did not fit, so being able to provide something different has made them flourish,” said Edgemon, who has worked in the Philomath School District since 2004.
Philomath Academy Principal Dan Johnson and Edgemon both want to get the word out about their campus.
“For me, this year’s been really hard, but if they have found that the flexibility with doing things online or in comprehensive distance learning has worked for their family, then we’re a great option for those families,” Edgemon said.
Philomath Academy has taken up residence in the Philomath High School library, although that’s not seen as a permanent solution. The school will likely have its own physical campus separate from PHS sometime in the coming years.
The pandemic’s craziness forced Philomath Academy to move forward at a rapid pace but in the end, Johnson believes it has become clear that nontraditional schooling works well for many students.
“We want to make sure people understand that we are not a response to COVID,” said Johnson, who also came into the Philomath School District in 2004.
Indeed, the Philomath Academy’s wheels were in motion long before the arrival of the coronavirus. Johnson had made presentations to the School Board in prior months, although the official vote to establish the new campus didn’t occur until May 4, 2020.
So, what’s it like to learn as a Philomath Academy student?
“We get to individualize everything for every student, so that’s been the best part of coming to this school,” Edgemon said. “Students aren’t locked into ‘I have to be in this place at this time,’ so that opens up the opportunities for them to take advanced courses if they want to, or if they need remedial help, we can offer that at any time to them.”
Johnson said Edgemon’s move from the high school was one of the best things that could’ve happened to the academy because of not only her knowledge, but “the care and compassion that she has for students.”
It’s that 1-on-1 opportunity that appeals to Edgemon.
“The best part of coming here and what makes me so much happier in my job is knowing I can work with kids individually and not have to cater to the masses,” she said.
Many people believe alternative schools exist to give troubled students a place to fit in and learn and although that may fit into some situations, that’s not the full picture. Johnson describes Philomath Academy as a “K-12 option outside of the traditional brick and mortar.”
The school has been approved by the Oregon Department of Education and for next year, administrators are looking to create partnerships with Linn-Benton Community College so students can take classes there.
“I have quite a few juniors that are going to return to us (this fall) so they can have that opportunity,” Edgemon said. “They’ve liked how school has gone for them.”
Enrollment this academic year has reached as many as 203 and overall, Edgemon said at least 300 students have come through the academy. As of early last week, enrollment stood at 156 students.
In addition, Edgemon said she’s provided credit recovery support to almost 100 Philomath High School students.
“The plan will be next year for those families that are wanting to continue the CDL (comprehensive distance learning) like they’re doing at Clemens or at PES, those students would come to the academy,” Johnson said. “And if attendance is large enough, we should have a Philomath teacher teaching Philomath kids in that capacity.”
Johnson said the school is looking at either expanding or adjusting hours to make sure it’s meeting student needs.
“We have students that work all hours of the day and night,” he said. “It’s amazing how many students log in at 10 o’clock (at night) and work until 2 o’clock (in the morning). It meets their needs.”
Several students have landed decent-paying daytime jobs and don’t want to give those up to attend classes with specific hours.
“For my high school students, it’s opened up opportunities to gain employment during the day that they didn’t have before,” Edgemon added, “so they’re looking possibly at other jobs besides fast food … construction or landscaping, things like that, so then they’re able to do their school work in the evenings.”
The high school and academy are working together in the best interests of students. For example, high school students that prefer the in-classroom environment do have the option of taking an academy course.
“A great example would be a foreign language that isn’t currently offered that they have an interest in,” Johnson said.
The Philomath Academy also became an authorized testing center for its students that want to pursue a GED diploma. General Education Development tests designed by the American Council on Education provide a way to measure high school equivalency.
Edgemon said six students have received GED diplomas this year. She believes Philomath Academy’s ability to offer on-site testing has changed lives for those that determined it would be their best path in light of challenges that surfaced for them personally during the pandemic.
Philomath Academy’s reach into the community has included a quick video sent to eighth graders to let them know about the option, as well as families that have been home-schooling their students. The official registration period for the academy will arrive in August.
“We really can meet the needs of most students,” Johnson said. “You come in, you figure out what you’re needing and how we can move you forward.”
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