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Reboot of Columbia City School discussed at public meeting

School planned to open in 2015; configuration not yet determined

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - St. Helens School District Superintendent Mark Davalos presents options for reopening the shuttered Columbia City School at a public forum Wednesday, Oct. 15, in the cafeteria of McBride Elementary School.The St. Helens School District on Wednesday, Oct. 15, held the first of two planned community forums to present information about its plans to reopen the old Columbia City School next year.

Mark Davalos, district superintendent, outlined four options for how the school could be configured when it is reopened. In any case, he said, he wants the school to have a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, arts education, or both.

One option for Columbia City School would be to have it open as a second middle school for the district; Davalos said it would likely serve students coming from McBride and require the two elementary schools to be reconfigured to serve kindergarten through fifth grade, with sixth grade moving to the middle schools.

The second option Davalos outlined would be to reopen the school as a third K-6 elementary school, serving students from Columbia City and other communities north of St. Helens, including transfer students from the Rainier area. A related third option would be to have the school serve students all the way up through eighth grade, leaving St. Helens Middle School to serve the students matriculating from the other elementary schools.

The fourth option explored at Wednesday’s meeting would be to restore Columbia City School to the way it used to be: a sixth grade-only school, intermediate between the district’s elementary schools and St. Helens Middle. This option would likely also require the two elementary schools to reconfigure as K-5 schools. Davalos said the option could also be modified for the school to serve only kindergarten, or kindergarten and first grade, instead of sixth grade.

Opinions on options

Sidney Allen, a freshman at St. Helens High School, identified herself as one of the last students to attend Columbia City School for sixth grade before it closed in 2012.

“I think going from a K-6 school straight to a middle school is hard to adjust,” said Allen at the meeting.

Allen prefers the fourth option because, she said, “I loved having only sixth grade at the Columbia City School.”

Both Allen and Barbara Anderson, another meeting attendee, expressed concerns about having sixth-graders attend school with seventh- and eighth-grade peers, as they do in Portland Public Schools and several other Oregon school districts. Anderson said she has experience with sixth- through eighth-grade middle school and prefers St. Helens’ existing model.

Meanwhile, Columbia City resident Robert Bainbridge said he wants to see the school reopen as a neighborhood elementary school, saying “it’s the only way to go.”

“It’s my opinion that option two is the only option,” said Bainbridge. “I know my neighbors — a lot of them bought their homes because they wanted their kids to be able to come to Columbia City School. ... I think we need to get our community school back open for our community.”

Three school board members attended Wednesday’s meeting, including Ray Biggs, who lives in Columbia City.

Biggs said he wants to pursue a fifth option: moving the alternative Columbia County Education Campus into the schoolhouse in Columbia City. The campus, which serves high school students who do not thrive in a “traditional” school setting, is currently housed in aging portable buildings behind the school district office building in north St. Helens.

“They are the only ones that don’t have stick-built buildings, and I feel sorry for them,” Biggs said. “I think we ought to do something for them.”

Role sought for STEM

While meeting attendees voiced differing opinions about the school’s configuration, there seemed to be general support for the idea of the school being oriented toward STEM or arts education, or both.

“What I’m saying is all kids need STEM,” said Davalos. “We start with that boundary and start with that new school as a place to launch it and begin to move it [to other schools].”

Davalos’ interest in STEM education is an echo of an abortive effort he led last year to explore reopening Columbia City School as a STEM magnet academy. The campaign attracted little public interest and ran up against budget concerns at the time.

However, the school district ended its most recent fiscal year with a larger-than-anticipated fund balance, and the school board has made it clear that it expects Davalos to have the school reopened in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year, regardless of its configuration.

Davalos estimated Wednesday that reopening the school would cost the district only slightly more than the money it saved by shuttering it in 2012, at the height of its budget problems.

The meeting was held at McBride Elementary School. A second community forum will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 29, at Lewis & Clark Elementary School.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 12, the district will circulate a survey asking members of the community to vote on their preferred configuration for the school.