Scappoose staff and students reflect on rollout of new electives, including astronomy, knitting and yoga, accompanying J-term format

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - J.C. Gross, Nate Sullivan, Isaac Cook and Chris Tobin, shop for healthy ingredients to make stuffed bell peppers as part of their 'Budget Foodie' class, which teaches students how to eat healthy foods while watching the bottom line. Sponsorships from a local grocery store made the weekly shopping trips possible for the students. The students planned to cook their meals on the final day of class this week.Entering a classroom, you don't always expect to see a half dozen students practicing yoga, knitting scarves, cooking meals from scratch or playing chess — but if you walked into Scappoose High School this January, you just might.

On Friday, Jan. 27, students and staff wrapped up the school's very first "J-Term," the name used to define a series of alternative education classes offered to students for an abbreviated time in January and again in June. Those classes are then bookended by regular semesters, where curriculum includes the basics, like math, science and language arts.

The school district adopted the new J-Term schedule last spring. It places students into regular courses like science, math and language arts for the first 15 weeks of the school year, followed by a three-and-a-half week schedule where students select elective courses in subjects like backyard astronomy, food budgeting, the basics of engineering and other diverse topics. Then students dive back into traditional classes for another 15 weeks, followed by a final J-Term at the end of the year.

Many students appreciate the freedom to choose subjects that interest them. Biology teacher Kristen Hagen said that choice gives students a sense of ownership over their education, which in turn makes them more invested in their classes. This month, Hagen has been teaching engineering as well as food budgeting and health classes.

"What's really rewarding is that they have ideas for curriculum for next J-Term and they want to build a meaningful education about what they're interested in," Hagen said.

Students like Ethan Paschall and Cooper Sears in Hagen's engineering course, said they enjoyed its relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to be more hands-on.

"One of the main things is it's a lot more freedom — not necessarily more free time, but more time to learn," James Brady, another student in the class, said.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Kaylie Kopra and Aspen Ekstrom color detailed pictures during their 'Mindfulness and Meditation' class. Students in the class participated in mindful relaxation activities like coloring, journal-writing and reading during half the class. The other portion of class was dedicated to learning yoga poses and discussing positive mental health habits.Educators have also enjoyed the alternative courses because it provides them the opportunity to teach subjects that wouldn't normally fit into everyday curriculum.

Courtney Scott, the health and leader-ship teacher, has been leading two classes in mindfulness and meditation, teaching students stress- and anxiety-coping mechanisms.

Giving students who feel overwhelmed by academics, their home lives and other stressors the chance to take a break and learn about positive mental health has been a good experience, Scott explained.

Demand for the class has been so great, Scott said, she plans to offer a version of it during the regular semester. Students in the class like Audrey Colfelt and Brianna Western said they learned breathing techniques that will be beneficial throughout the school year.

Hagen added that the enthusiasm in the classroom has been inspiring.

"To bring back learning just for the joy of learning has been wonderful, for not just students, but for teachers as well," Hagen said.

The shortened J-Term is also a plus for students who are taking advanced placement classes, participate in band or choir, or need additional support in areas where they struggle academically. Students who need extra help use the J-terms to work more in-depth with teachers to get on track on troublesome subjects.

In years prior, Scappoose High School has followed a more traditional daily schedule with the school year broken down into trimesters or semesters with eight class periods packed into the day. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, Principal Jim Jones and school staff said it was too much.

After visiting other schools that follow a similar J-Term model, Jones said staff was brimming with ideas of how to implement something similar in Scappoose this school year. While the implementation of the new schedule was met with some concern and resistance by parents last spring, the rollout of the new program has been successful and something the school plans to continue, Jones said.

In spring, the advanced placement statistics class plans to quantify the success of the program through students and staff surveys, Jones added.

"Then, it's not just about how we're feeling, but it's about the data," he said.

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