A crossing guard at Philomath Elementary interacts with a student during Tuesday's return to classes. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

As classes reconvene this week after a summer break that never seems to be long enough, administrators at the all seven campuses in the Philomath School District will see more students walking through their doors.

Philomath Middle School Principal Steve Bell, entering his 16th year in that position, said enrollment figures for the sixth grade heading into this fall surpassed expectations by about 10 students.

“Our school’s total population right now is about 355, which is about 20 students more than last year,” Bell said. “So we’re excited for the growth and it’s growth that at this point still keeps us in a good environment here as far as managing our systems that are in place.”

Asked about capacity for the middle school, Bell said there’s no firm number.

“Once we start getting closer to 375 to 400, that’s probably our capacity,” he said. “Once we get past 400, we really have to start changing systems. And we’ve done a little bit over the last two years with changing how we assign lockers in the main hallway or lunch and break periods. … It really helps us manage the student movement and activity times.”

At Clemens Primary School, seventh-year Principal Abby Couture will see a large kindergarten class coming in, which led to the hiring of an extra teacher.

“We’re at 96 for kinder kids with the class sizes at either 19 or 20,” Couture said. “We have 85 students at first grade, so there’s no need to hire another teacher but that puts class sizes for them at either 21 or 22.”

Combined for the two grades, the enrollment count adds up to 181, which is about 15 students more than the end of last year.

“The maximum we’d ever want to go is 25 and that’s really pushing it for kindergarten,” Couture said about class sizes, an extra-important number to pay attention to for those young students. “I like to keep kindergarten at around 20 so that’s why we hired another teacher.”

Philomath Elementary’s enrollment as of last week was up to 368 students for grades 2-5, which is up around 13 students from the end of last school year. Numbers in the fourth grade led to an additional classroom. Blodgett enrollment was sitting at 34, which is seven students more than the school had a year ago at this time and 12 more than in 2021-22.

Philomath High School could hit 500 students for its enrollment this year. As of early last week, Principal Mark Henderson said the number was around 491. At the end of the last academic year, the high school enrollment stood at 413, a number that fluctuated based on students opting for Philomath Academy classes.

The academy is also seeing more students to begin the academic year, counselor and head teacher Beth Edgemon reported. The number of submitted enrollments as of last week was sitting at around 60 students for K-12 with 75% to 80% of those at the high school level.

Out at Kings Valley Charter School, Mark Hazelton, who is the business manager and part of the administrative team, reported last week a student count of 200. That number is up from the 182 reported for the end of this last school year and below the student cap of 216.

Here’s a campus-by-campus look at students head back to school:

A PHS freshman greets teacher Shelly Brown, who was standing in front of the school for a stretch Tuesday morning to greet students. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath High School

Henderson last week expressed excitement for the school year as teachers started coming back into the building and with Mike Hood joining Daphnie Collins on the administrative team as vice principals. Henderson is in his second year as principal.

Freshmen started classes Tuesday for a one-day head start on the rest of the high school student body.

This academic year, Philomath is beginning the process of introducing a concept designed to enhance the learning environment to help students reach their full potential through collaboration among educators.

“Professional learning communities are a way to get teachers to collaborate around student data to help not only them improve their practice but help kids get better,” Henderson said.

Henderson said training works well with professional learning opportunities on early-release Fridays. He called the implementation a three-year process with this first year focused on essential standards.

“This year is really around identifying in absolute terms what do kids have to know and be able to do?” Henderson said. “Teachers can still teach the fluff, right, but really, what do they absolutely need to know and be able to do to be successful?”

Henderson reports no changes to curriculum but said teachers will be dialed in to identify standards most important for the kids to learn.

“Once we pull all those out, then we can create learning targets in student-friendly language so students know what they have to know and be able to do,” Henderson said. “It’s always better when you know what the target is that you’re shooting for.”

The teaching staff saw few changes beyond the retirement of math teacher Ann Blythe.

“We didn’t need to hire for her position because we had two part-time math teachers serving in part-time roles and so we bumped them up to full-time,” Henderson said. “So we’re sitting with basically the same staff we had last year.”

As for facilities, Clemens Field received a lighting upgrade for improved visibility at football games. Other miscellaneous work was done on the building, including brightening up the main entrance area.

Kings Valley High School

The rural campus, which operates its charter school sponsored by the Philomath School District, started classes Aug. 28. The school entered this academic year with a lot of new faces, including a new dean of students in Jessica Kinsey and a new registrar in Robin McFarlin.

New teachers include Michaella Manuel-Sagon (kindergarten), Julia Svedin (grades 3-4) and Kerala Riley (high school math). In addition, Kaitlen Caruso has been brought in as social-emotional learning coordinator, a new position.

“We’ve had retirements and people moving … we were able to hire everybody except a middle school-high school science teacher,” Hazelton said.

The school last week was in the process of filling the vacant teaching position. To begin the year, Hazelton said an administrator was filling in to teach middle school science and a math teacher was covering high school science.

“We have candidates and we actually have two interviews this week,” Hazelton said last Wednesday. “We just don’t have them for Day 1.”

The school continues for a second year with a team approach to administrative duties without a specific principal or executive director. Along with Hazelton and Kinsey, other admin team members include Diana Barnhart (director at large) and Athena Lodge (director of education).

“I think we’re making better decisions, you know, where you have a team, more minds, and the workload spreads out a little bit,” Hazelton said.

Hazelton said there have been adjustments for people with the admin team approach differing from the traditional single person in charge.

“There’s something about schools where people — kids, parents, teachers and employees — are looking for the one person who takes care of me,” Hazelton said. “And we’ve got four people so that’s been a little bit of an adjustment for some.”

In the area of facilities, KVCS continues to work toward the construction of a building to serve its career and technical education program, a project that has seen delays. When finished, the structure will have a woodshop, welding shop and space for live animals.

Other work on buildings was limited to routine maintenance. Hazelton reported no changes with curriculum.

“It’s nice to see the kids and it’s nice to start with good weather — not quite as hot as it’s been,” he said. “I think it’s going to run smoothly.”

A Philomath school bus makes its way down Applegate Street as students started to head back to campus on Tuesday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Academy

Philomath Academy begins its fourth year operating out of its new location in the school administration building and with the departure of former Principal Dan Johnson, the hierarchy has changed a bit. Edgemon added head teacher to her counselor title and Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday will help with administrative duties.

“Susan’s going to step in as our principal as needed when we need support and the other admins in the district, I believe, will always be supportive, too,” Edgemon said.

Edgemon believes Philomath Academy is turning a corner.

“We finally feel like we are able to do what we intended to do,” she said. “COVID threw a wrench into that but now we really feel like we’re becoming the alternative school that we want to become.”

The academy moved from the high school library into its new space last winter.

“We’re happy to be here because we know we’re meeting a need for students who need an alternative setting,” Edgemon said.

In addition to the main classroom — which is where the School Board holds its regular meetings for those familiar with the layout — the academy has another room kitty-corner to that space.

“That’s where we have our office, so our registrar secretary’s there and I have an office,” Edgemon said. “Jennifer House, our K-8 teacher, has a small classroom for students to come into.”

The academy made changes with its online curriculum, returning to Apex courses that had been in place two years ago.

High school students are scheduled to begin in-classroom work Wednesday after an orientation Tuesday. Elementary and middle school students will begin work but not actually come in physically until next week, Edgemon said.

Philomath Middle School

On the middle school campus, the most noticeable change will be the new entrance off Chapel Drive. Benton County Public Works is currently working on a road-widening project that will include turn lanes along with a multi-use path that runs parallel to Downing forest.

However, there will be an immediate challenge with Chapel Drive from South 13th to Bellfountain closed to traffic beginning Monday and continuing until Sept. 20.

“That’s one of the things we’re talking about — how we’re going to manage, how’s that going to look at the intersection with Clemens?” Bell said.

The middle school and primary school will find out later this week, especially when kindergarteners start going full-time on Thursday. However, the end result of the project is welcomed.

“It should be nice, you know, the whole use of getting from the neighborhoods  and just the whole vision for that, it should be really nice,” Bell said. “It’s just living through the remodel at this point.”

As for staff, Bell reports heading into this academic year that many are returning although there have been a few notable changes.

Administratively, Chad Matthews has moved from an assistant principal and success coach role back into the classroom to teach sixth-grade language arts. Jamon Ellingson, who last year shared those duties with Matthews, has now moved full-time into the assistant principal job.

Joining the staff to take over the success coach position is Mitch Gross. Another newcomer to the staff is special education teacher Ben Deardurff.

Bell reports no curriculum changes heading into the year. A committee will come together to take a look at social studies materials and recommend possible changes in the future.

Philomath Elementary and Blodgett Elementary

Eric Beasley takes over as Philomath Elementary’s new principal following the retirement of Bryan Traylor. Beasley makes the move after working as a principal for the past 12 years in the Corvallis School District.

“It’s been really great in August to start meeting with the administrative team,” Beasley said. “In a small district, it’s really great to see that vertical alignment. I’ve spent more time with middle school and high school than I had in my previous districts, so that’s been really neat to see.”

Mike McDonough returns to PES as the assistant principal. 

As enrollment figures became available, the district realized it needed a fourth classroom for fourth graders. A fourth-grade teacher that last year had been moved to the third grade out of necessity now goes back up a level to accommodate the need. As a result of that move, a new third-grade teacher has been added in Will Bean, a local resident who had been an instructional assistant in Corvallis before teaching for a year at Independence.

Philomath graduate Marissa Beachy joins the staff as a second-grade teacher. Beachy, who was Marissa Eng before marriage, comes to the local district from Lebanon. In the fifth grade, Eleanor Jones-Highburger will be leading a classroom. She comes to Philomath from Alsea. And Candace Van Patten comes aboard as a special education teacher with her previous job in the Corvallis School District.

Beasley said there have been no major changes to the building but in classrooms, higher-tech large-panel touch screens are being phased into second- and third-grade classrooms.

“Those are nice because you don’t have the bulbs going out and the projections, you can just stand right in front of them, so those are nice for instruction,” Beasley said.

The school is implementing a new literacy curriculum this academic year to align with the primary school. Also, the school has gone to iReady, a program designed to determine a student’s needs, personalize learning and monitor progress. The school had previously used the Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention program.

Beasley doubles as the principal for Blodgett Elementary and he reports no staff changes from this past academic year. Diane Priewe and Elaine Hall return as teachers.

“It’s the same structure with K-1-2 with Diane and then Elaine has the 3-4,” Beasley said.

Clemens Primary School

Students won’t start at the primary school until Thursday with kindergarten assessments scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. The process of where to place kindergarteners has changed this year.

“The first couple weeks of school, the kinders get to rotate between all the teachers,” Couture said. “As we get to know the kids, then we’ll make better decisions about what teacher would be a best fit and which peers will be good to pair with other peers. So I think we’ll hopefully have a good idea and can make stronger classroom choices this year by giving this a try.”

Final decisions on classroom assignments will occur at the CPS open house on Sept. 13.

“The beginning of the school year is always an exciting time,” Couture said. “And getting to meet all the new incoming kindergarteners is always a highlight.”

The addition to the kindergarten teaching staff is being filled by Sunny Bennett, who previously taught in the on-campus preschool classroom. Another new teacher in the building will be Madison Allen, who takes over a first-grade classroom following the retirement of Julie Rain, who had been at the school since 2018.

Couture reports no changes with facilities over the summer. Plans for a covered play area have not yet materialized with the project going out for bid on two occasions — the second attempt with a modified design — and all came in well over what had been budgeted.

The School Board briefly discussed the project in April with member Joe Dealy calling it a facility addition that needs to happen. Couture said last week that the hope now is for the play area’s construction to occur next summer.

Couture said there have been no changes with the curriculum. Last year, there was a change with reading materials that will align with the elementary school.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.