The mission of Phoenix Charter School is to help students graduate high school, no matter how long that takes.
“I don’t care about my four-year cohort data,” said Executive Director Thomas McGregor. “I want success. My mission is (establishing) caring, productive citizens in the community and we’re committed to that.”
The Oregon Department of Education’s goal is to have 90% of students graduate within four years by 2025, with a current average of 79%. This is referred to as “on-time graduation,” and at Phoenix School that rate is at 23%, while 35% of students graduate in five years.
The school has been working on youth reengagement with the Youth Development Division to establish activities, programs and systems that help students return to school and get a degree.
Kayla Kimbrell graduated from Phoenix Charter School in 2019, her seventh year of high school.
“I went to (Roseburg High School) for a little bit but there were so many students it was hard to get one-on-one with the teachers,” she said. “I feel like here they did that more. There were also cool hands-on learning classes that were available, so you get a more broader experience of what kind of field you want to go into.”
But even at Phoenix, she started missing classes.
“We saw her reengage and disengage probably every year since 2016 and just come back do a little more when it worked for her,” McGregor said. “That’s very common.”
Teacher Melanie Morrow stayed in contact with Kimbrell through the Remind app, which Kimbrell said made her feel encouraged to come back and graduate. The Remind app, available for Android and Apple devices, is touted as an easy way for students and parents to remain connected with their school communities.
“If they don’t graduate, I’ve failed,” Morrow said about why she contacts students to come back to school. “They didn’t fail, I did.”
Morrow has been teaching at Phoenix Charter School for 23 years and has frequently reached out to students to return to school, either through apps or when she sees them in town.
She teaches a class called Learning On the Fast Track, one of the school’s longest-running programs, in a space designed to engage students in any way imaginable. There’s a kitchen, sewing area, computers and all kinds of other things students can do to stay busy and learn a new skill.
The class was in place before virtual learning existed and has continued to stick to a model where students are in charge of setting the pace for their education, with guidance from Morrow.
“The core LOFT model is that you have to serve a certain amount of hours a week and you have to meet a certain level of academic progress to maintain your placement, but it’s student directed,” McGregor said. “It’s still a very vital part of our school. As we try to keep youth engaged in school, sometimes we have to put them on a non-traditional schedule and LOFT affords us that ability to continually meet students where they’re at. We can figure out how to make school with those needs, with those time scheduled, et cetera.”
According to data from the Youth Development Division, there are 17,506 Oregon youths between the ages of 16 and 21 with no high school or GED diploma, and who are not enrolled in school.
Across the state, there were 6,401 students who left high school in the 2017-18 school year, including 277 in Douglas County, according to the Oregon Department of Education. In the Roseburg school district, there were 152 dropouts, 52 of those came from Phoenix.
Those are students the teachers at Phoenix Charter School are trying to reengage in school.
Cord Bueker Jr., a policy analyst for the Oregon Youth Development Council Workforce, noted that the state is moving away from using the term dropout because not all students leave school voluntarily. Some are pushed out or stop attending for a variety of reasons, such as health issues, care-giving, or working to provide for themselves or others.
“There are a wide variety of barriers to education, and likewise, a range of approaches to reducing or removing these obstacles,” Bueker said. “An important first step is talking to youth about their needs and interests. Giving youth a voice in programming, creating a welcoming and supportive environment, and offering programming and instruction that is relevant to youths’ interests all serve to remove barriers and engage youth.”
Phoenix Charter School is purposely designed to look like a house, there’s no bell between class periods and the rooms are not numbered. It’s supposed to be a home for its students, including a food pantry, a laundry facility and other amenities to help students overcome some of those barriers.
Morrow has pictures of babies, children of the teen parents she’s taught over the years, displayed in her classroom. She also allows the students to bring the children in the classroom, sometimes even encourages it.
The Youth Development Division identified barriers for students who leave school, which include school climate, academic struggles, behavior issues, health problems, family care-giving, pregnancy, parenting, incarceration and trauma.
“An alternative setting may address some of the barriers that led to disengagement, by offering more personalized instruction, on-site services that address barriers, and an environment that is more welcoming and responsive to a youth’s particular need,” Bueker said. “Providing alternative educational options can be critical to reengaging youth, and can better support their retention and success.”
In documentation submitted to the Oregon Department of Education, the school notes that the goal is to serve youth through a trauma-informed lens as a means to support students with an intentional focus on building personal resiliency.
“This work needs to happen in our community,” McGregor said. “We need equity in our community, for serving the people in our community who have hardship in their life, who have experienced trauma.”
Phoenix School is a part of a collaborative initiative called Creating Community Resilience. The mission of the initiative is to provide awareness for Adverse Childhood Experiences, community resilience and trauma-informed capacities in Douglas County.
“I strongly believe that the community wants us to be taking in all students, regardless of their background, regardless of their means, and do whatever it takes to achieve success,” McGregor said.
McGregor notes that households in Douglas County have options for how their children can be successful in high school.
“Having a nontraditional gives more options, more lanes on the highway for kids to merge into as they need,” he said. “They need to be in the slow lane, they can be in the slow lane. They need to be in the fast lane, they can be in the fast lane. Nontraditional (education) being available to Douglas County households through our agency, they have the power of choice. That can be very powerful when working with an adolescent that suddenly is very stubbornly independent and wants to assert themself in their life. Through the power of choice, we can keep them on a track for success.”
At Phoenix Charter School, students also have the opportunity to enroll in GED courses and work at their own pace toward a degree.
“Students that have been away for a long time tend to be the most motivated,” GED instructor Sean Strickland said. “They have grownup stuff to take care of outside of school, so they tend to be more serious, mature, and easier to help.”
Students Mariana Cole and William Sargent are taking GED courses at Phoenix School, and although their stories are different, neither were able to succeed in traditional schools.
Cole appreciates that Phoenix Charter School does drug testing because of her history with drug addiction, and that she’s able to work at her own pace in the GED program.
“I’ve been in and out of a lot of schools,” Cole said. “This is a lot better than I’m used to.”
Sargent moved to Roseburg in January after he got out of juvenile detention in Wyoming and had trouble finding a school that would accept him.
The then-17-year-old had spent two of the last seven years locked up and had just nine credits, making him a high school freshman.
“I wasn’t always committed to going,” Sargent said about school.
Getting into the GED program at Phoenix School seems to have changed that. He plans to go to college and return to California where he has family.
“If I pay attention, school’s not that hard,” Sargent said.
What helped Sargent stay motivated was, at least in part, is the GED teacher’s unique approach to teaching in his classroom.
“With no common core, I can be innovative and help the students individually,” Strickland said. “It’s also populated by students that tend not to like school, so I can reach those students by being unorthodox.”
Strickland, who is from New Jersey, taught multiple subjects throughout his career. Students who want a GED diploma typically want it within a year, so Strickland has to try to compress four years of information in the four core subjects — math, science, language arts, and social science — in that time.
“It’s like teaching on a different planet and not for teachers who like regular high school,” he said. “It’s for mavericks and nutty professor types.”