Art Tech uses profeciency-based learning to let students succeed

by: JOSH KULLA - West Linn teen Lara Valachovic, right, will graduate from Arts and Technology High School a year early this June and plans to study psychology at Western Oregon University.West Linn teen Lara Valachovic epitomizes the reasons why the West Linn-Wilsonville School District’s Arts and Technology High School originally was opened.

Created in 2005 as an alternative to the district’s two traditional high schools, Art Tech, as it has come to be known, is a haven for students unable to fit in academically or socially at either Wilsonville or West Linn high schools.

With a much lower than normal student-teacher ratio and an emphasis on proficiency-based learning, the school has become not only a last resort for troubled students but a first resort for those interested in a different path.

“Someone asked me the other day how I could do this, and I had to think about that,” Valachovic said at a public event held by the school’s stewardship group earlier this school year. “I really don’t know. Maybe because I’m not ashamed of where I came from. I’m graduating at 16 years old and I love myself. It’s crazy to think of that because of where I was just a few years ago.”

There are just 101 students in grades 10-12 enrolled at Art Tech this year. Compared with the 1,500-plus kids rolling through the front doors of West Linn High each morning, it’s a breath of fresh air for kids like Valachovic, who found themselves struggling to find the attention and resources they needed to thrive in school.

It’s usually not a matter of brains or ability. Instead, there are many students who find themselves battling with outside forces that impact their ability to focus, study or otherwise succeed in a larger group setting. This is what the school was created for in 2005, when it opened in a retail storefront on Wilsonville’s Main Street.

Since then, it has garnered a reputation not only within the school district but also throughout the metro area for its innovative approach to teaching and learning.

Valachovic courageously stepped forward to publicly share her story with members of the public, school board members and fellow students. And that, in itself, is another trait that sets the school apart.

A talented ballet dancer, Valachovic took up tap shoes at age 5 and found that she had a natural aptitude for a sport that sometimes drives its practitioners to extreme lengths in order to excel.

“It was my entire world,” she said. “It was safe there, and I could lose myself in the movements. I was good at it and my parents were proud of me.”

A foot injury and subsequent surgery several years later, however, turned a budding dream into a nightmare.

“I didn’t know how to move my body anymore,” she said. “And that high praise turned into ‘It was good, but ...’”

For a self-described perfectionist, it was more than she could bear. Coupled with mounting difficulties at home, her entire world began to fall apart. She lost weight, and even began to experiment with self-injury.

As she hit rock bottom, Valachovic stared at herself in the mirror and realized that the changes she needed to make were more than she could handle on her own. As she made her way through the eighth grade at Athey Creek Middle School she quit dancing and began to look around for help.

“I locked myself in my room and said I’m never going back to that ballet studio again,” she recounted. “And that was a step in the right direction. School was not helping either, but then I found Art Tech. And as I started my freshman year here, I was amazed at how good it was.”

That was two-and-a-half years ago.

“I had an opportunity to go on this thing called the Phoenix Program,” she said. “It’s a YMCA camp (Camp Collins) where you can figure out what and who you are, and it was the first chance I’ve ever had to be open. I realized I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t the only one who was hurting.”

Allowing teens that opportunity is precisely what Art Tech is all about, said Principal Saskia Dresler, who has headed up the school the past five years following a stint as principal at Cedaroak Park Primary School in West Linn.

“We are here with a lot of purpose,” Dresler said. “Because graduating from high school can be filled with obstacles for some students. Our purpose is to help students succeed academically as well as in all facets of life. All of our students can be leaders, and we’re helping to prepare them for where they’re going to go.”

Before this year freshmen also were enrolled at Art Tech. But district officials felt that the demand for slots at Art Tech justified allowing only older students to enroll.

They are guided by Dresler and 10 teachers and teaching assistants, some of them part time.

Fully 46 percent of the Art Tech student body falls into the “economically disadvantaged” category, while 37 percent are classified as students with disabilities. There are 16 students currently enrolled in Art Tech’s adult transition services program, four students taking part in a GED preparatory course and one student with limited English proficiency.

Every year, Dresler said, the school requires its students to “re-apply.” That consists of drafting a statement that lays out the benefits each student receives from the school.

“It’s things like, ‘I believe that Art Tech benefits me academically, socially and behaviorally,’ or ‘I’m proud that I have had an easier time focusing this year and have learned a lot more, made more friends this year and have a better relationships with teachers.’”

It’s all part of the school’s emphasis on mindsets. Specifically, the concept of a “growth mindset” is instilled as a way of overcoming the “fixed mindset” that leads to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and poor academic performance. That fixed mindset, Dresler said, becomes self-fulfilling and inflexible.

One way the school succeeds in this area is through proficiency-based learning.

“The revolutionary part is grades are based on how a student demonstrates what they’ve learned,” Dresler said. “I meet a lot of students who are very bright, but who don’t turn in their homework, but could pass a test. So by the end of the course they might have attendance problems and have not passed a course by the traditional grading method. But proficiency-based learning bases a student’s grade on a demonstration of meeting learning targets.”

By her numbers, she said, the current 11th grade student cohort at Art Tech demonstrated percentage point increases in their exam scores ranging from 4.5 to 60 percent.

“Often, the freshman year is hard for kids,” she said. “We see some kids who do well in eighth grade and then in ninth grade it’s tough.”

That’s exactly what Valachovic experienced. From desperation to hope, however, she used the support she found to put herself on track to graduate a year early. She now plans to attend Western Oregon University next fall, where she will major in psychology.

“No matter how mean I was, they still cared,” Valachovic said. “They kept me on track and kept me going. Art Tech saved me and I don’t think I would be standing here without them. Because of Art Tech I’m graduating and I’ve never failed a class in high school. I am happy to be me and I really like myself. The school has done so much for me.”

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