He still has boxes to unpack in his office and years’ worth of paperwork to sort through, but Thomas McGregor, the new director of Phoenix School, isn’t letting that stop him from moving forward with big plans for the Roseburg campus.
McGregor, the school’s former Chief Operating Officer, officially began his new role in July when former longtime director Ron Breyne stepped into the part-time position of development director with plans to retire in the near future. And though Breyne’s office is down the hall, McGregor has mostly been left to his own devices.
“It’s been an adventure,” the 36-year-old said, adding that he as an excellent team of staff and teachers to rely on.
McGregor was 24 when he moved to Roseburg from Portland in 2007 for a stint as a crew leader for the school’s Youth Corps program, an off-shoot of the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps that seeks to connect at-risk youth with their local community through service-learning projects, paid jobs and internships throughout the county.
He stayed on at the school longer than expected, taking on different roles. When two students became determined to travel to Africa after watching “Invisible Children,” a documentary about human rights violations in Uganda, he stepped in.
After helping the students raise $17,000, he found himself in the Portland airport on his one-year work anniversary on his way to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage for a month.
“That year really cemented why I like this community,” he said. “We had passionate kids who wanted to do something. We weren’t laughed at, we were listened to. It was what got me hooked.”
McGregor became a teacher at the school, which was founded as an alternative education program in 1981 and seeks to create pathways to college and careers through high standards of academic achievement, career-technical education and personal growth. Under Breyne’s leadership, McGregor also worked as the head of the school’s career and technical education program and facilities manager.
Breyne began working at the school with its inception and said he recalls being impressed by the “small team of creative, dedicated teaching ‘nerds’ really learning how to connect with students.” He’s served in various roles at the school ever since, watching as it grew into the nonprofit that it is today, enrolling more than 180 high school students during the school year and serving youth at all grade levels through summer programs.
When Breyne began considering retirement, he suggested that McGregor consider the role of executive director. With that in mind, McGregor spent the past two years commuting to the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management to earn his master’s in nonprofit management.
As the school’s new leader, McGregor has continued work to adopt forward-thinking practices in education. Mental health issues have come to the forefront, for example, and the school is implementing trauma-informed practices and restorative justice concepts. All are systems that traditional educational institutes are catching on to and that fold well into the approach Phoenix has taken with students for decades.
“The way Phoenix does business, the way Phoenix does education with kids,” McGregor said, “the rest of the world is also saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should look at those type of practices and do them.’”
McGregor is particularly excited about a partnership in the works with the Douglas County Juvenile Department that would allow some 40 students in transitional living programs to begin taking classes at Phoenix. The youth are those who’ve transitioned out of foster care or whose juvenile court cases have been adjudicated and are seeking their GED or diploma.
The students would participate in the school’s fledgling Bright Works Academy, an after-school program that focuses on career-connected learning opportunities. The first Bright Works Club at the school has been teaching students about health occupations for the past two years, and the school will be adding clubs to focus on construction trades, culinary arts and agriculture.
McGregor sees the partnership with the juvenile department as a way to serve the youth and benefit the community at the same time by growing its workforce.
“It cements in our culture that all kids are valuable regardless of their background,” he said.
The expansion would also mean that Phoenix will be open several evenings out of the week, providing dinner service and a safe place for many students to spend time after school. McGregor sees potential to add new ways for the community to make use of the campus as well.
“This building was built by the community,” he said. “I feel it’s my charge to help make sure this building serves the community as much as it can.”
For Breyne’s part, he’s excited about the school’s future.
“I envision a community-centered campus, infants to elderly, where youth, staff and community enrich their own lives, experience and education by pooling their talents to solve community problems and build a more capable, resilient world,” he said.