Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a three-part series about Onalaska High School. ‘Smart Ax’ will examine the school’s unique approach to culture, community and classes, including natural resources, social and emotional learning, aquaculture, and Lewis County history.
In Onalaska sophomore Kate Zandell’s experience, middle school classrooms use a standard “teacher-to-student” model. In high school, her classmates have found success with a “student-to-student” approach.
Zandell, 16, said this in a Tuesday interview with The Chronicle in the Onalaska High School principal’s office.
Asked if the concept of “student-to-student” learning was introduced to her by educators, Zandell shook her head, “No.” That’s just her experience. According to Washington state data, Onalaska High School had 249 high school students at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
“We all help each other,” Zandell said.
A smiling, proud Onalaska High School Principal Wade Pilloud sat next to Zandell in one of six interviews with The Chronicle on Tuesday. In each, students and staff showcased what they think is special about their school district. It’s illustrated by the way Zandell and other students use “classmates,” “friends,” “student body” and “community” interchangeably.
This straight-A student, as a freshman, started a Thanksgiving food drive because, in her words: “I’m very fortunate to have family that can provide for all of us during the holiday season, and, some of my friends, their families aren’t. I saw that, and I wanted something to help. But, not just help them, but help everybody around us.”
Last year, Zandell’s food drive collected about 1,000 non-perishable food items for the Salkum food bank. As a sophomore, she ran the program again in November.
A member of the Onalaska High School student leadership group, Zandell also roused her classmates to get involved with a Christmas gift drive through the “family tree” at Brenda’s Country Market. On the tree are notes listing unnamed kids and their desired Christmas present.
“We raised money all together. Just from our pockets, nothing school-wise,” Zandell said. “Say, we had a 6-year-old girl, and we got her coloring stuff, we got her a couple pants, a couple pairs of shoes and T-shirts. Just stuff to make her life easier. … We all felt like it was a good idea to use what we didn’t need to help give back.”
Pilloud continues smiling, nearly laughing as Zandell earnestly describes the Onalaska Loggers’ charity efforts.
This article is the first installment of a three-part series about Onalaska High School, including its efforts to help students bounce back from the days of COVID-19 education and low expectations, unique educational offerings and the school’s culture.
“It’s kind of one of those mystical things that’s hard to describe,” Pilloud said. “But you can see it when you see it. I would really like for people to understand that Onalaska is truly special.”
The high school is undergoing a staff-led rebranding, which will implement a more modern version of the school’s Logger mascot. One sticker, designed by a parent, shows the Logger’s ax swinging down on a textbook with the pun: “Smart Ax.”
Faculty are focused on more than new logos, though. In his second year at Onalaska, the principal has headed the “OHS Promise.” Pilloud and volunteers collected lists of adjectives from students, staff and community members that best represent what Onalaska High School is and ought to be. After cutting out redundancies, they came up with a 19-word list. Those words then form the basis of the school’s strategic plan.
“It’s training I received when I was in Wisconsin,” Pilloud said. “That’s why I don’t think anyone in Washington is doing it.”
Of the OHS Promise’s more ambitious goals, according to Pilloud, has been re-establishing pre-COVID academic and social expectations. During that time, “it’s no secret,” he said, students weren’t asked for their best.
When done correctly, “school pride” reverberates beyond the school’s walls and into the unincorporated, 500-ish person community.
Fortunately, Pilloud doesn’t have to look far for students and teachers who share the mission.
Kaiyah Sandridge, 16, another Onalaska sophomore, came to Principal Pilloud at the beginning of the year with a proposal. A grade ahead in math, Sandridge receives tutoring requests from friends on a regular basis. Her idea was to lead a volunteer peer tutoring group that would meet each week on Wednesdays, an early dismissal day, between the end of school at 1 p.m. and the start of sports practices at 3:30 p.m.
Asked his reaction when a 16-year-old volunteered to spend her own time teaching math to other teenagers, Pilloud laughed.
“I was a little worried that she would be the only tutor there,” Pilloud said. “I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s roll the dice, it’s a great idea.’”
The first day of her peer tutoring session, Sandridge, “ran up and down the halls” reminding her classmates. Twenty members of her approximately 60-person class showed. Every week after, she estimated, the sessions have averaged about 11 students, and about four of those are tutors.
Sandridge’s older sister, Brooklyn, graduated Onalaska High School last year as valedictorian and was recruited to the Harvard track team. Kaiyah, who plays soccer, basketball and intends to compete in track this year, dreams of attending Stanford for either medicine or education.
“When you’re teaching the subject, it helps you understand, too,” she said. “You have to listen to the teacher and just translate it to the students how they would understand it, to see both perspectives.”
Sandridge is pleased with the program’s turnout, but not necessarily surprised. This year, more than any since the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, students have been enthusiastic about their education and community.
“People are volunteering like they actually want to help,” Sandridge said. “They want to make a difference. They want this year to be a change. … There was even someone specific that came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, I want to try this year. I want to turn around.’ I was like, ‘Great! Start here.’”
Lewis County history
Mazen Saade, a history teacher and the varsity football coach, when told he could have an elective for any history class of his choosing this year, went with Lewis County history, with, of course, a focus on Onalaska.
Saade, who goes by “Maz” on the football field, is building the curriculum himself. In the first quarter of the school year, the class has covered the fur trade and some general Washington history. Now, they’re on the formation of the county, Saade said.
Over the school year, Saade said he hopes to cover Lewis County industry and labor, tribes, Onalaska families, the Carlisle Mill and, “Who knows? I mean, it’s education. So, we’re going to see.”
He hopes the class will give students a better understanding of their roots. Staff, Saade said, want high schoolers to feel that the community will support their endeavors after graduation, regardless of what those are.
“You want to go to college? Go to college. You want to go to work? Go to work. Want to go to trade school? Graduate school? Go. See what the world looks like. But, know that this is always your home,” Saade said.
Originally from Rochester, Saade student-taught “law and community” at Centralia High School under Timothy Gilmore. This is his 15th year teaching in Onalaska. He loves that, unlike in larger districts, the rest of the community can’t help but watch the high school’s every move. The school is the social center of the town.
As the football coach, Saade cites the water boys and girls on the sidelines. If the high school quarterback tells them to get their homework done before Friday night’s game, Saade said, those kids do their homework.
Thus, the pride, the “mystical” piece of Onalaska’s culture, begins long before students enter the high school.
“There’s a lot of pride in this town. It’s one of the things I really treasure about it,” Saade said, later adding, “We’ve got some great kids here. Selfless kids. And they’re caring kids. And they’re very humble. And those are things that are hard to teach.”