Susan Woodard burns 25 minutes of instructional time taking out and putting away materials every time she plans student experiments as part of her seventh-grade life sciences class.
Across the campus at Pathways Middle School in West Ada School District, just a dozen students can squeeze into Dayna Ward’s classroom where she teaches consumer science, math and creative writing. The portable classroom used to be a portable lavatory in a previous existence, with frosted windows on the building’s exterior to prove it.
On days when students cook and bake, Ward’s consumer science students traipse to yet another building that holds the ovens. And in math class, there isn’t enough room for all 12 students to participate in games that are essential to helping them learn.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” Ward said.
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In a district where taxpayers shell out millions of dollars for brand new schools every few years, Pathways Middle School is an anomaly — the only West Ada campus made out of portable buildings that look vaguely like modular homes. Some students get teased that they attend a “trailer park school,” said Eric Eschen, principal at Pathways since it opened in 2006.
142 Number of students enrolled in Pathways Middle School
Pathways is an alternative school where students who struggle academically can choose to go. Its shot at becoming a school with real, permanent buildings languished as the district sank into recession, Eschen said.
West Ada put its money elsewhere, said Mike Vuittonet, a board member who was a trustee during Pathways’ early years. Dollars went to Meridian High School’s expansion — a way to get more high school seats without having to build a whole new high school — and to construction of Renaissance High School at the district service center on East Central Drive.
Pathways’ building situation wasn’t a “three-alarm fire,” Vuittonet said. The school was doing a good job and running well.
But about three months ago, West Ada School Board Chairwoman Tina Dean took up the cause with then-interim Superintendent Joe Yochum, who took over for former Superintendent Linda Clark.
Pathways has no cafeteria and no gym. In Dean’s first meeting with Yochum, she brought up her concerns about Pathways, Yochum said.
Dean says she was aware of Pathways’ problems before being elected to the board in 2013. “It’s not that the education is bad or the reputation of the school is bad,” Dean said. “I don’t want to send them the message they are not valued.”
Yochum did some preliminary research on replacing the school. At Dean’s urging, he stopped short of making any recommendations until the new superintendent came on board.
Mary Ann Ranells was hired as superintendent in late December. She toured Pathways at Eschen’s request when she visited Meridian before taking the job.
“Holy cow,” she said. “This school doesn’t even begin to compare with the others, in terms of the facilities.”
If she got the job as superintendent, she recalled thinking, this should “be the first dream we need to make come true.”
The kids and the staff are a priority to me.
Tina Dean, West Ada board chairwoman
District staff has not yet brought a recommendation to the board on what to do or how to pay for the new school. But preliminary plans call for using $5 million from the approximately $20 million the district collects each year in a property tax levy to pay for facilities and maintenance to cover the cost. As Pathways works its way to the top of the priority list, other projects — such as finishing the second story of Renaissance High School and its rigorous academics — may have to wait, said Yochum, who is in charge of district operations.
West Ada District already owns the land where the new Pathways would go, just across the parking lot from the existing campus, Yochum said. So most of the estimated $5 million will go into the building.
When the new Pathways is built, it’s expected to have a science lab that will help restore instructional time for teachers like Susan Woodard. Pathways also should have regular-sized classrooms, instead of the one-third size that Ward has for her math and consumer science classes.
A gym will be part of the cafeteria, so students don’t have to head off campus to go bowling or to the YMCA for P.E. in inclement weather.
And Eschen thinks he’ll get even more students interested in coming to Pathways to get the help they need.
They’ll see a new school, the principal said, instead of thinking, “‘What kind of school is this? It’s not even a real school.’”
New school plans
A new Pathways Middle School isn’t officially on the drawing board. Here is what district officials tentatively plan:
▪ Size: 25,000 square feet
▪ Site: Across parking lot from the existing Pathways campus on Heritage Park Street
▪ Estimated cost: $5 million
▪ Completion: Winter 2016
▪ Features: Classrooms, cafeteria/gym, science lab
What is an alternative school?
Alternative schools are usually thought of as a place where districts send students who struggle academically or cause problems in school.
Pathways Middle School is a school of choice, said Eric Eschen, principal. Parents make the decision to move their children to Pathways, and students are interviewed by Eschen before they are allowed to enroll.
“They are struggling, but they haven’t fully rejected school,” Eschen said. “They haven’t been unsuccessful long enough to be broken, but they are breaking. Our job is to get them back on track.”
Half the students who come to Pathways eventually return to traditional school.