Camas alternative school to move, downsize

Budget cuts force popular River HomeLink to be cut in half, relocate to B.G.

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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CAMAS — The award-winning River HomeLink alternative school program, operated since 1996 at the Camas Church of the Nazarene, will relocate next to the Battle Ground school district office next year.

Longtime Principal Mark Clements informed somber school parents and students gathered Tuesday in the church basement, just three days before school lets out.

The abrupt move is driven by state budget cuts and newly available space at the district’s Center for Agriculture, Scientific and Environmental Education complex on Northeast 149th Street, just west of state Highway 503.

In Camas, River HomeLink made use of about 12,000 square feet, and 14 classrooms. At the CASEE “C” Building, there’s only 5,000 square feet, room for just six classrooms.

As a result, Clements can bring along only a handful of teachers, and offer far fewer courses.

Rather than its current 450 full-time equivalent students in grades K-12 (512 distinct students), River HomeLink can serve only about 200 FTE in 2011-12.

“It’s tough. We’re breaking up a great school,” Clements said. “I’m really sad, because I have an awesome team. We are going to be cut in half.”

Nine of his teachers have earned national board certification in their subject area. The special “parent-partner” program, where home-schooled pupils attend either state-required courses in history, mathematics and other subjects or dozens of popular enrichment classes, has earned “School of Distinction” honors for stellar Washington state assessment results.

Beloved beyond local area

It’s become a beloved institution for residents in southeast Clark County, and far beyond.

When Battle Ground in the early 1990s first launched its HomeLink program (which continues in central Battle Ground with 344 full-time students) it quickly proved popular. But many parents balked at the long commute and urged a satellite location near Camas-Washougal.

Battle Ground asked the local school districts if they wanted to host the program but got no takers. So, it set up shop in the church, miles distant from the Battle Ground district boundary — earning $4,975 in state funding for each full-time equivalent student.

Figures from October showed 62 percent of students living in the Camas or Washougal district, 29 percent in the Vancouver or Evergreen district — and nearly as many commuting from Stevenson as from the Battle Ground district itself.

“The reason this place started is because people didn’t want to drive to Battle Ground,” Clements observed. “All that travel time is lost learning time.”

Return home

Superintendent Shonny Bria said several factors merged in just the past two weeks to produce a “perfect storm” that pressed for big change.

The district has long pined to bring River HomeLink back into Battle Ground district territory, long before the state budget crisis. Bria said “at least two years” had been spent on a search for a suitable facility. Some costly upgrades at the Camas church were likely needed to continue there, she added.

A break came this spring, when the Washington State University Cooperative Extension vacated its leased space at the CASEE complex, also home to Battle Ground’s alternative Summit View High School.

The final straw: State legislators this spring agreed to slice about 15 percent from per-pupil state support funding for all alternative learning programs (the exact portion is still being figured in Olympia). The cutbacks were justified in part as response to emergence of online learning programs that don’t incur “brick and mortar” overhead costs born by K-12 schools.

That was little consolation to Battle Ground, which besides HomeLink runs the hybrid-studies CAM Junior-High School campus that serves 414 full-time students in grades 5-12.

Parents scrambling

Endorsed Substitute House Bill 2065 also demands more frequent, real-time contact between alternative learning students and instructors, which educators fear will further crimp those programs.

(Gov. Chris Gregoire has yet to sign the legislation, with a June 15th deadline looming. Alternative education advocates want her to veto the funding cuts, but it’s doubtful she would unravel part of the hard-fought compromise state budget.)

In Camas, parents are scrambling to adapt. They’ll have to re-register their children on Friday, two weeks after they believed they were set for 2011-12.