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Dec. 3, 2022

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Students learn Fort Vancouver history on first day at new elementary school

Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School to feature project-based lessons

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Students from Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School visit Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Tuesday morning.
Students from Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School visit Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Tuesday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A hundred or so children marched into Fort Vancouver on Tuesday morning — not with the intent to conquer, but to learn.

The field trip marked the start of the school year at the new Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School, or VITA, where young students from across Vancouver Public Schools will spend two-week intervals throughout the year engaging in what’s called “project-based learning.”

This winter, Vancouver Public Schools will open enrollment applications for students who are interested in attending VITA full time starting fall 2023.

On Tuesday, students walked around learning about the Hudson’s Bay Company, buffalo soldiers and the U.S. Army barracks. In a partnership with the National Park Service and the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, students will learn about their local history and be invited to put together group projects on the aspects of history that interest them most. An estimated 6,100 elementary school students throughout Vancouver will cycle in and out of VITA, and, in turn, Fort Vancouver throughout the year to help introduce the teaching model.

“History is a part of education, and this is really about incorporating that sense of belonging, too,” said Vancouver Superintendent Jeff Snell.

Just before students arrived, a group of teachers and park rangers assembled to present the finalized curriculum for VITA students’ project in learning about Vancouver’s history to Snell and Fort Vancouver Superintendent Tracy Fortmann.

Tim Melcher, known as a “teacher-ranger-teacher” who has led the curriculum’s design and implementation, said this project was something that hit close to home for him.

“I grew up in Vancouver. I used to come to the fort every weekend,” Melcher said as he presented the curriculum in the form of a thick, well-labeled binder. “This is something I care a lot about, and I’m excited to be involved.”

The curriculum also includes lesson plans featuring the Pearson Air Museum, the Kanaka village surrounding the fort and Native American history. Referred to as the “past, present and future” of Vancouver, it will also feature details on how the city and region have modernized through the years, such as with the construction and expansion of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

VITA finished construction in early 2022 and, as part of a $458 million bond measure in February 2017 to upgrade and repair school infrastructure, cost about $46 million. The school’s design is intended to foster student-led learning through larger group projects while featuring open spaces, movable walls, mobile furnishings and looser scheduling throughout the day. Teachers will share groups of students and move from space to space, rather than adhering to more structured scheduling.

VITA’s approach to hands-on learning couldn’t have come at a better time, said Jennifer Blechschmidt, VITA’s principal and formerly the director of Vancouver’s Family-Community Resource Centers.

“This is really the right time for kids to be engaged in project-based learning,” she said. “Working together, learning what engages them most in a social setting is what these kids need right now. These are 21st-century skills.”