(Lander, Wyo.) – The future of Pathfinder High School is still uncertain following Friday morning’s Fremont County School District 1 Board of Education meeting, but no one in the meeting voiced support for its closure.
Earlier this year, a task force was formed using representatives of PHS and Lander Valley High School, as well as Curriculum Director John Metcalfe, to look into the future of the 14-year-old alternative high school.
The main reasons the school district is studying options, Metcalfe said, are for financial purposes, student performance and facilities. To conduct the studies, the task force reviewed more than 100 articles about alternative schools and talked to leadership in other such schools across Wyoming.
Presently, PHS has 31 students and last year it had a 58.3 percent graduation rate, which Metcalfe said was in the low-middle range compared to other alternative high schools in the state. Enrollment has slowly decreased over the last couple years, but former PHS Principal Kathy Hitt said this was because juveniles were no longer being housed at the jail. Previously any juveniles in the jail were automatically enrolled in PHS. Despite having made Adequate Yearly Progress, Metcalfe said under a new accountability system that’s set to start next year, PHS would have been deemed “not meeting expectations.”
State revenue for PHS has decreased, he said, noting that’s because of the drop in enrollment. Last year, he said the board put more than $200,000 into the school beyond what was allocated by the state. Later several board members said the state doesn’t dictate how any of the school district’s funds are spent, and it is their prerogative to spend it where they feel it’s needed. Trustee Bruce Palmer asked to be provided with how much other schools were being “subsidized” as well.
The task force presented seven different options ranging from keeping PHS as independent as possible to closing PHS and absorbing the students into LVHS to converting PHS into a charter school.
Metcalfe said the majority of the task force (5 of 7) prefer the idea of keeping PHS fully independent with its own staff, classes, etc. and move into the now-empty Starrett Junior High School building. The pros identified with this option are the science labs, gym, cafeteria and potential for growth. The cons identified are that its the most expensive option and would continue to be a challenge to align with PHS.
The second choice among the task force was to move the students to the Baldwin Creek Elementary building and partially integrate the students into the LVHS population and vice versa.
Staffing levels, coordination between the high schools, and student needs were all identified as areas to think about in moving forward.
Several board members and PHS staff told emotional success stories of students who would have likely dropped out had they not had the opportunities provided by PHS. Trustee Dave Clark said a measure of success is noting how graduates have become productive members of society.
Mark Watkins, a PHS paraprofessional, said if the school district would send a positive message about the school, enrollment would increase.
Current PHS Principal Kate Roberts said the students like the social and emotional connections they can make with teachers with the smaller classes. She said many of the students express a dislike of LVHS and its large comparative size, using that as an example against further integration.
Trustee Joe Palladino said in his mind the district can afford the alternative school, noting that financially it’s working right now. “We’re doing it all and the sky hasn’t fallen,” he said.
Chairman Brett Berg called the topic “very emotional.” “We have to keep in mind what’s best for the whole district. It’s not a Pathfinder issue to me, it’s a district issue,” he said.
PHS Counselor Jannette Van Patten said the amount of help these students need is determined on not any one risk factor but how many risk factors they face. She said the unknown about the future of the school is causing fear, and thereby creating another risk factor.
Superintendent Mike Bowman said he would take into account all of the thoughts and concerns voice, and come back to the board at its Nov. 19 with a recommendation.