Clark Fork kids spend Fridays cooking, welding and painting

CLARK FORK — Eighty-four students. Elective courses cut. Days were focused solely on core classwork. This was Clark Fork High School in 2014.

Fast forward two years.

Clark Fork is one of Idaho’s most remote cities, nestled on the Montana border about 26 miles from Sandpoint (population 8,000). Clark Fork’s main industry used to be logging but today, the 530 people who live in town largely commute or are retired. The school, part of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, also supports kids from nearby towns Hope (population 80) and East Hope (population 200).

Enrollment has grown 36 percent to 115 students who have added classes in culinary arts, technology, art and outdoor recreation to their core workload.

The transformation at Clark Fork High happened after principal Phil Kemink asked every student one simple question: What is your dream class?

He changed the curriculum to include teaching and learning in topics kids were interested in, things like cooking, welding, radiology and fishing.

“The question was no surprise to me,” said Emily Garman, a senior at Clark Fork High. “We call ourself one big happy family for the reason that we all care about each other and want one another to be successful. This was just the icing on the cake.”

Emily wants to be a radiology technician and now has the opportunity to work at a medical clinic 26 miles away from school in Sandpoint. She is job shadowing medical assistants, doctors and radiology technicians every Friday. Emily sets patients up in rooms, checks patient vitals, removes stitches and positions patients for X-rays. Emily landed a part-time summer job at the clinic and plans to study at Lewis-Clark State College.

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“I’m very grateful,” Emily said. “I understand how to work with medical equipment and efficiently with doctors. You don’t learn about that in the classroom.”

How Clark Fork adapted to student interests

Kemink and his eight teachers surveyed students in grades 7-12 to find out what their interests would be.

From that response, Kemink reached out to community members and organizations to help create a learning track program based on a combination of student interests, opportunities for community involvement and teacher expertise and interest.

“We had no clue how successful this would be,” Kemink said. “We are meeting the needs of our students.”

Kemink knew electives were not only desired by students, staff and parents, but he knows students need to meet skills required by employers.

“I hope these tracks will light the fire of interest in different careers,” Kemink said.

Enrollment is up because kids in the area heard about the new learning track program. Many were homeschooled.

“Families are looking at different options in the education of their children,” Kemink said.

How it works

Students attend their core classes (English, math, science and history) Monday through Thursday and Fridays are track days — a total of 30 days during the school year. Students have five tracks to choose from each semester. The tracks change year after year, depending on students’ interest. Teachers don’t assign tasks or homework in track learning. The process is flipped. Students decide their learning path and ask teachers for help or resources.

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Arts track: Students are working with professional artists and do hands-on projects that engage local artists and students.

Culinary track: Students work with professional chefs in the community, take restaurant tours and meet with dietitians to learn the profession of culinary arts.

Independent track: This track is dedicated to juniors and seniors who would like to focus on a specific career and includes job shadowing and hands-on experience in the workplace. Students work up to eight hours on a job site on Fridays.

Outdoors track: Students can job shadow forest rangers, wildlife biologists and timber cruisers. Students learn about water stewardship, ecology, land use, conservation and avalanche awareness.

Technology track: Students learn the ins and outs of science, technology, engineering and math. Projects include tool use, wood working and welding.

“This is academics at its best,” said Mike Turnlund, the learning track coordinator. “The best day of the week is Friday.”

How is success measured?

Teachers survey students and parents to measure both satisfaction with the program and if students are reaching their own learning objectives.

The school uses the learning track program to help meet district writing goals with field journals. Students are required to write about their learning experiences after each track day. These journals are graded as classroom assignments, although the learning track program is a pass or fail class.

“These journals provide an excellent window into what our students are learning, how they feel about these experiences,” Turnlund said. “This has been working quite well.”