The district has held off on plans to merge CAM’s high school grades with River HomeLink for now
BATTLE GROUND — It was a packed house at Monday’s Battle Ground School District Board of Directors meeting, as dozens turned up to say their piece about the future of CAM Academy.
“It would be a shame to close the school simply because many of our students are prepared for college by the 11th grade,” said Charlotte Propst, a recent graduate of the program.
District Superintendent Mark Ross says his goal isn’t to shut down CAM Academy, but to move the 3-8 grades of the program into new portable classrooms on the Maple Grove campus, and merge the high school grade levels with the River HomeLink program, to save the district money and bring CAM’s Advanced Placement (AP) offerings to more of the district’s students.
“We’re hoping that through this recommendation we can do something that’s fiscally sound, continues the excellent tradition at CAM Academy, and gives us the opportunity to perhaps even expand the 3-8 program to perhaps a K-8 program,” said Ross at Monday’s meeting.
CAM, which stands for Character and Academics for the Marketplace, was started in 1996 as part of the district’s HomeLink system which provides “support to homeschooling families who felt disenfranchised.”
By all accounts, CAM Academy has been hugely successful. The program boasts a 93 percent on-time graduation rate, and has earned numerous state awards for academic achievement. CAM’s attendance rate in the 2017-18 school year was over 96 percent, among the highest in the state. Student test scores are often 28 to 37 points higher in language arts, math, and science, compared to the rest of the district’s public schools.
But that success, it seems, may be a double-edged sword.
“Currently, about 95 percent of the juniors and seniors go to Running Start from CAM Academy,” says Ross, meaning that enrollment drops precipitously in the 11th and 12th grades and state funding per student dries up at that point.
“CAM students are motivated, driven students who have been prepared to succeed in a college environment,” said Propst. “Running Start is a smart choice, because it can considerably offset the college costs. Is the school district wanting to punish CAM Academy, one of their most successful programs, because their students are planning for college?”
Despite the success of the CAM model, enrollment has been declining, says Ross, from 582 full-time students in 2014, to 521 in 2017.
The school has also drawn criticism for its enrollment process which, while deemed “open,” has a number of restrictions including academic record and grade level testing. While CAM is technically an alternative school, it receives public money, leading some to believe admission standards similar to a private school should not be allowed.
In his comments on Monday, Ross said there is growing belief that a successful program like CAM needs to be open to more students in order to provide “equitable and financially viable” educational programs.
Former board member Mavis Nickels echoed that sentiment in her remarks, saying the board is “seeking that same ideal, not just for your students, but for every one of the nearly 13,000 students in the district.”
But it’s clear the close-knit community of CAM Academy isn’t likely to take kindly to talk of opening the doors to more students. Calls for a more truly “open” admissions process resulted in several outbursts in the gathered crowd including words such as “ridiculous” and “unbelievable.”
Ross says the reason for his recommendation has nothing to do with CAM itself, but more to do with the cost and limitations of the building that has housed the program for 26 years.
The district has leased space from Gary Albers, who owns the 35,000-square-foot building at 715 NW Onsdorff Blvd, since CAM was started in 1996. The $500,000 a year, or nearly $48,000 per month, adds up to nearly $9 million over those 26 years. In 2018, the district renewed their lease with Albers through this coming school year, but determined to look at alternatives in the meantime.
Albers, by the way, also teaches 8th grade Geography at CAM Academy.
Ross says the lease of Albers’ building has caused CAM Academy to run a deficit of $534,251 in the 2017-18 school year, compared to a $27,115 surplus for River HomeLink, which meets on the former Maple Grove Middle School campus.
In early 2018, Albers offered to sell the building to the school district at a cost of $3.5 million, but the board voted against it, citing issues over problems with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, and a lack of space to grow in the future.
At Monday’s meeting, Albers said there are plans to add a lift to the interior of the building.
“Also at City Hall is the application for a new parking lot and a change in traffic, which is going to improve greatly the drop-off and pick-up capability for our students,” Albers told the board, while contending impact fees could be used to fix up the building.
Albers passed around documents he says prove that purchasing his existing building would be far more cost-effective for the district than a new building, or even a series of ten-plexes to house CAM’s students, who use the facilities 3-4 days a week.
Ross said the district lacks funding to build a new building, or even buy an existing one, but could use impact fees to cover the cost of portables on the Maple Grove campus.
Albers said his research shows the district could use impact fees to upgrade his building if they purchased it.
Half a decision
With that question unanswered, the board voted 4-1 to move ahead with moving CAM students onto the Maple Grove campus starting in the 2020-21 school year, but held off on changes to the high school grade levels for now.
Ross had proposed merging CAM’s high school grade levels with River HomeLink, which was founded three years before CAM.
“CAM was established to provide a ‘high school continuation for HomeLink families …’” said Ross, “I believe that we already have that option, and on a larger scale, with River HomeLink and River Online.”
Ross denied his plan was ever to abolish CAM Academy’s high school program.
“It gives us the ability to expand the AP (Advanced Placement) classes, with more students available to take those classes,” he told the board. “I don’t see us not offering any of the classes that are currently at CAM high school, it just gives us the opportunity to offer more and perhaps have more students stay with us instead of going to Running Start.”
River HomeLink has 889 full-time students as of the 2017 school year, at a cost of $5,158 per student to the district, Ross says. By comparison, students at CAM cost the district approximately $6,835 each.
It should be noted here that the average cost per student in the Battle Ground Public School district at large is approximately $9,240, according to the state superintendent’s office.
Olivia Parrish, an incoming senior at CAM, said she’s not so much concerned about where they go to school, but about maintaining the core group of instructors and students.
“The building we learn in doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Maintaining the student body and faculty does, as it would preserve the wonderful culture and climate of the school.”
And that seemed to be the primary concern of most of the other parents and students who spoke out on Monday, concerned that blending CAM’s high school grades with River HomeLink would lead to a watering down of the successful culture built at CAM.
“CAM Academy is CAM Academy,” said Mindy Davis, who has three children at the school, including two at the high school level. “You combine it with anything else it’s no longer CAM. It’s no longer what I chose, or any of these other parents chose for their children.”