North Coast schools are testing a program they've dreamed of for years, although many people feared it would become a logistical nightmare.

Students from four of five districts in Clatsop County are attending classes at schools outside their districts in a pilot program that administrators tabled in the past, because it was loaded with potential problems.

"It's got some hiccups," said Astoria High School Principal Larry Lockett. "But I'm liking a lot of things."

With electives and staff being cut - Astoria High School has lost more than 10 teachers in the past five years - sharing classes gives the districts a way to capitalize on specialties despite dwindling funds.

"We have limited resources," Astoria Superintendent Mike Sowder said. "And we want to provide as many avenues as we possibly can to serve students."

About 20 students, mostly juniors and seniors, are participating in the exchange this year. Astoria is sending six students to Warrenton for American Sign Language and another six or seven to Seaside for culinary arts. About three students from Warrenton, one from Seaside and one from Knappa are traveling to Astoria to take classes in business, industrial arts and band. Astoria had opened up its fisheries and marine biology classes, although no one from outside the district enrolled. The same happened in Knappa, where no outside students enrolled in the joint animal sciences class.

Difficulties with scheduling may have contributed to the lack of students enrolling in Astoria's science programs, said teacher Lee Cain.

Lockett agreed that scheduling constraints have limited participation for many students.

He said some of the districts have in-service days when others don't. Some of the high schools have a seven-period day, while others run on a "block" schedule of four that only meet every other day. Classes start at different times and electives are offered on limited schedules. Add in traveling between school districts, and getting students to classes on time and back to their districts presents a major obstacle.

"It's a great idea and it's working pretty well, but it's taking a lot of man hours to organize the little tiny things," Lockett said. "And everything you do has a gigantic ripple effect."

Students are almost entirely responsible for their own transportation, but the districts have to verify proof of insurance, obtain parent-signed notes, set up parking and manage scheduling.

"If anybody's a hero in this thing," Lockett said, "it's the counseling department." It is charged with the task of juggling student schedules, getting them the classes they need and the classes they want.

Warrenton High School Principal Rod Heyen also said scheduling was the most demanding issue, adding that after-school activities complicate the mix. "You have to get the kid to the other school and back in time for practice," Heyen said. "You have to be ahead of the game."

Astoria is "double booking" students to handle mismatched schedules, Lockett said. But students must have enough credits racked up to be able to afford scheduling extra periods for taking block classes in other districts.

Some students have already taken classes outside of their high schools. Astoria and Warrenton students often take community college classes, including welding, writing and calculus. Seaside High School already saved several spots in its culinary arts program for out-of-district students, Principal Don Wickersham said, so students could have "an opportunity to be included in a program that's not offered by their high school.

"And I think we're still early on in the process," Wickersham said of the new program. "I would like to think we're going to have an opportunity for more development next year."

Seaside Superintendent Doug Dougherty agreed, calling this year's pilot program "the first step in a county collaboration among high schools and working with Clatsop Community College.

"At this point, we see this as a wonderful opportunity for our students," Dougherty added. "We hope to expand the opportunities for them in the future."

The roughly 20 students participating is a small amount relative to the populations of the four districts collaborating, but the small proportion is good for testing the program, Lockett said. He said it lets administrators iron out the kinks without problems becoming too severe, and it's a small enough number that districts aren't transferring funds between schools to offset enrollment in the joint programs.

"We wanted to start on a small scale with small numbers so we could find out if it would be successful," Lockett said. "It balances out pretty close.

"The first time is always the toughest time, but you make corrections and the next time it will be easier."

And gives 20 students benefits they didn't have before, Astoria's superintendent said.

"That's not a lot," Sowder said, "but that's 20 people we're providing with a service we weren't able to offer in the past."

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