Too Cool for School? Teaching Evolution on the Coast. Tradi-shun-all to Alternative S’cool

School’s still out for summer – for some of us. But let’s face it, the sun is setting pretty early these dog days of summer, and soon, for all of us – parents, kids, teachers and the rest of the community – the new school year will be upon us. Here in Clatsop County, some things will be different this year.

A Fresh Start
Star of the Sea School, a private, Catholic school associated with St. Mary’s Church in Astoria, which opened in 1895, closed its doors at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year in June. Most of its former K-8 students will be heading to one of the corresponding schools in the Astoria public school district.

After a financial meltdown, the Sunset Empire Transportation District, Clatsop County’s bus system, has been bared to the bone. Some of the students that were able to travel between districts will have to find new transportation options. This is even more relevant this year, as the Oregon legislature has passed a bill that will allow students from one district to transfer to another within the county without release by the former district, which will most probably increase the amount of students opting to attend school in a different district than they live.

Many of the county’s public school districts have seen their budgets sliced by more than 10% this year, due to the sluggish economy, and less revenue going to the state, which sets the amount that each student gets in state funds. On the ground, this translates into lost programs, such as Future Farmers of America at Astoria High School and physical education classes in Warrenton. Craig Hoppes, superintendent of the Astoria school district, calls the situation an “unfunded mandate”, since the requirements for graduation are still the same, but the money isn’t there to fund the classes and programs necessary.

Some teachers have lost their jobs, some have had their hours cut, and many have been transferred into new and challenging positions due to the funding cuts. Administrators have had to look for innovative ways to keep the schools open and productive. Parents have scrambled to adapt to the new landscape. And into the fray may be coming a new charter school, which if approved would open their doors for high schoolers in September of next year.

But there are still many options available to parents and students in this rapidly changing education landscape, some that have been around since Clatsop County has existed, and some just coming into their own. Let’s take a little tour of some of these options, and see if any of them might be a good fit for you and your student(s).

Kirk and Grace House
Sister and brother Grace and Kirk House, Oregon Connections Academy students, share a work table at home.

Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA)
A typical school day for Kirk House, an 8th grader starting his second year at ORCA, after awakening at sometime between 8 and 11, involves eating a great, home-cooked breakfast, and then easing into schoolwork on the computer, or reading a textbook for an hour or so. After a trip to the local skatepark and lunch, he gets into more involved schoolwork. He’s usually finished with school by 3 pm, and ready to play with friends before they get home. He has classes in art, social studies, language arts, reading, math and science, just like his friends still at Astoria Middle School. Most of his classes have about 30 students in them, and are given via the ORCA web interface, which allows for chat between students and teachers, lecture-like presentations, and interactive discussions via supplied headsets. There’s even a raised hand button you can click to ask a question!

Classes are recorded so if you miss a class, you can still get most of the interaction that took place and use it to complete assignments. The student determines the pace he or she goes at to complete the course, and Kirk told me he sometimes had to miss a class or two, but usually made up the work on the weekend. Even physical education is accounted for, with Kirk engaging in swimming, hiking, biking and bouncing on the trampoline, along with his skateboarding, for credit.

Kirk’s sister Grace thinks her social life improved in her first year in ORCA, as she used the social media aspects of the on-line schooling to a much greater extent than Kirk. But the verdict from both the kids, and both the parents (Julie and Rusty) was that ORCA was an improvement over traditional brick-and-mortar school. Both parents told me it was hard work for them, but well worth it.

ORCA has over 1600 registered K-12 students statewide, and at least 25 in Clatsop County. Students can work out taking extracurricular classes and activities, such as band, sports and theater, from their local public schools. For more information, to register, or just poke around the system, surf on over to

Oregon Virtual Academy (ORVA)
Like ORCA, ORVA is an on-line charter school, based in North Bend, available to all K-10 students in Oregon. The school is divided into two sections – K-8 and high school. Students in K-8 have 6-7 classes, with most classes on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mondays set aside for “homeroom”-like activities and review, and Thursdays and Fridays for tutoring and teacher office hours. Daily progress is monitored, and classes are on-line. The high schoolers have 6 teachers, one for each major subject, and it’s a paced program. ORVA supplies state-required testing at an institution near the student’s home.

The latest registration numbers are a total of 1081 students statewide, and 15 students in Clatsop County. Social outings are part of the curriculum, and interaction with local schools is encouraged. For more information about ORVA, go to

Fire Mountain SchoolFire Mountain School (FMS)
For the 2011-2012 school year, FMS has 2 classes, preschool and  K-2.  Tuition for the year is $2050 for preschool, which will meet Tuesday to Thursday from 9-1 and $4100 for the K-2 class, which will meet Tuesday to Friday from 9-3.

FMS was founded in 1983 by families interested in an alternative education for their children. You can’t beat the location – Oswald West State Park. Students go on nature hikes through old growth forests and to the beach from the school’s back door. Each class is limited to ten students to ensure individual attention. Mixed-age classes reflect the belief that combining ages enhances a sense of community. There’s an emphasis on the 4 C’s: communication, compromise, cooperation and commitment. The curriculum focuses on interdisciplinary studies, and there are no grades or testing.

Students tend to come from the south part of Clatsop County, but some notable examples of Astoria residents attending FMS were given by Jennifer Childress, a “retiring” parent volunteer. Childress’ daughters, Willa and Roan, have graduated, or “moved on” from FMS recently, and she is having some sadness at not being an everyday fixture at the school. “After 9 years, it will be hard to not be there all the time. It’s a great place for kids to learn about the world, and prepares them well for whatever comes next,” she told me.

Clatsop Community College (CCC)
The COLLEGE NOW Program allows high school students to earn college credits for completing high school course work in Accounting, Business, Fire Science, Industrial and Manufacturing Technologies, Maritime Science, Medical Assistant, Microcomputer Applications, Office Administration and Welding.

In the Dual Credit Program, high school students take college level academic coursework while enrolled in high school with instruction taking place at the high school.

Classes are available at CCC’s Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station (MERTS) and Integrated Manufacturing Technology Center (IMTC) campus for qualified high school students in grades 10-12 in welding, automotive and maritime.

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 provides federal funds for programs in Accounting, Agriculture, Maritime Studies, Mechanical Technology, Financial Management, Nursing, Administrative Services, Culinary Arts, and Business and Management at high schools in the region through CCC.

TRiO Pre-College programs at Clatsop Community College include:

  • Talent Search — Providing information, advising, tutoring, college visits and application assistance to 600 students in the 6th-12th grades in the Astoria, Warrenton, Seaside and Knappa school districts.
  • Upward Bound — Providing intensive advising, academic support and a six-week summer enrichment program for 60 high school students from the Astoria, Warrenton and Seaside school districts.

The Workforce Alliance is a community partnership developed to assist with skill enhancements of the emerging workforce. Through this partnership high schoolers can attend high school and workforce readiness classes and then move into internships with local businesses.

For more information on CCC programs for high school students, contact Lisa Nyberg at 503-338-2480 or Debby Robertson at 503-338-2506.

North Coast Christian School (NCCS)
North Coast Christian School is located in Hammond, on the campus of Gateway Community Church. They have pre-school, K-12, before and after school, and summer programs. Tuition ranges from about $2000 for pre-school to about $4000 for high school. The A Beka curriculum is used in all classes. For more information, contact NCCS at (503) 861-3333 or, or go to their website at

Gray Alternative High School (GAHS)
Going into its 4th year, GAHS is available to all county high school students that are behind on credits needed to graduate. The half-day program uses two teachers, and has about 20 students. Unlike other “alternative” high schools, GAHS employs some of the methods of the charter schools mentioned above – small class sizes, individualized attention, on-line programs, and self-paced curricula. The school has been successful so far, despite some initial protest from the neighborhood around Robert Gray School, where GAHS operates. For more information on GAHS, contact Larry Lockett, principal of Astoria High School, at 503-325-3911.

Before the advent of compulsory education in the U.S. and elsewhere, homeschooling was the norm. Nowadays, in order to homeschool your children, you must officially register with the Education Service District (ESD) for your county. For Clatsop County, the contact is Mardi Rose at 503.675.4031 or

The resources available today to help with homeschooling are truly staggering. Don’t know where to start, or what to teach in order to meet the required standards? The Oregon Dept. of Education has a web page dedicated to answering your basic questions at

Textbooks? There are several projects out there providing free downloadable textbooks and e-textbooks. A good start is FlexBooks from the CK-12 website at The math FlexBooks are currently being used by the Astoria High School math department in all their classes. Open source (free) textbooks are available from myriad sources by searching on the subject in the popular search engines.

In our household, we’ve used television, computer games, magazines, books, movies, YouTube videos, and parental, family and outside friend tutoring to supplement my son’s education. When he was smaller, frequent trips to the zoo, community center playroom, pool, playground and friends’ houses gave him a great start in education. All of these can be used in homeschooling, and most of them can be counted as credit towards meeting the graduation requirements in Oregon.

To find out more about homeschooling in Oregon, take a peek at the Oregon Home Education Network website at Or go down to the Astoria Library and peruse Home Education magazine for more ideas. You can hook up with other homeschooling families through several Yahoo groups and just from word on the street. Community schooling is the next wave!

Oceanview Charter School
Another option is in the works for students in Clatsop County, and may become available next September. Tom and Donna Freeland have received a federal grant administered through the state to plan for a new charter school, called Oceanview Charter School, to be located somewhere inside the boundaries of the Astoria School District, the sponsoring entity. By October 1, they need to present their proposal to the Astoria School Board, which will quickly decide whether it meets both the requirements of the state and the needs of the district’s students. At the moment, the Freelands’ plans are for the school to include grades 9-12, with about 100 students and 5 non-union teachers. Students will be drawn from all districts in the county.

Each charter school approved in Oregon has to have a focus, and Oceanview’s would be project-based learning. An example would be a student asking why so many kids are absent from school, with the answer that they have the flu. The teacher develops a project for the students to find out how to prevent the spread of disease in the classroom, has them collaborate in groups, and present their findings to the community. You can read all about “project-based learning” and “21st century skills” at the Buck Institute for Education website ( or the Project-Based Learning website (

The Freelands hope to provide a place for disadvantaged and also accelerated students, whose needs are not being met in the public high schools or homeschooling situations where they are today. In addition, they plan for Oceanview to emphasize “what the students want to do after high school.” Besides more parental involvement than is typical in the public high schools, they plan on involving local businesses by establishing mentoring programs and internships, similar to the CCC Workforce Alliance program.

With smaller classes, teachers trained in project-based learning, more individual attention, and community support, the Freelands hope that Oceanview Charter School can become a positive part of the North Coast community. For the next few months, they’ll be gathering community support, continuing to develop curricula and training programs, and looking for a physical location, all assuming that their proposal is accepted by the Astoria School District.

They’ve got support from Tina Gleason, who attended Olney School before it was closed, and is a 1997 graduate from Bridges Alternative High School, an experiment in alternative education in the Astoria School District which was very similar to the current Gray Alternative High School, and was located in the building now occupied by TLC Bank on Marine Drive in Astoria. She has 3 kids in the public schools now, one going into 8th grade, and was thrilled when she met Tom Freeland by chance in town a few weeks ago. She wants to be more involved in her kids’ education, and wants them to have “experience that prepares them for real life. I’m not getting that in the public schools now, and Tom’s idea sounds great to me,” Gleason told me.

For more information about Oceanview Charter School, contact Tom Freeland at or Donna Freeland at You can also call at 503-338-8357 or go to the website at
Whether or not the Oceanview Charter School opens next September, it seems obvious that education here in Clatsop County, as well as everywhere else, is evolving. The mixture of public and private schools – traditional, parochial, on-line, charter, alternative, independent and home-based – is being tested in the education marketplace, and more than ever before, is being allowed to settle according to parent and student choices. While the process is disruptive and messy, the end result should be a better education for more kids. Let’s hope so.


By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.