Wrestling coach Kody Lindsey prepares his team for a practice Wednesday in front of the Phoenix-Talent School District’s new high school. Lindsey, who is a graduation coach, said the community’s faith in the students represented by the new school helps motivate him and the students. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The official opening of the newly built Phoenix High School on Wednesday was bittersweet.
Students, staff and school board members say the school represents a “beacon of hope” for the Phoenix and Talent communities devastated by a September wildfire, but COVID-19 is keeping them from fully celebrating its completion.
Next week, students will start half-day classes in the bright and cheery building. Seniors will build a few memories before moving into the world, and freshmen will have classes together in their high school for the first time.
Senior Kylee Linnell said people needed the school right now, especially students who just want a little slice of normal. More than 600 Phoenix-Talent School District students were displaced by the fire that destroyed more than 2,300 homes in southern Oregon.
“Maybe they don’t have a house, but now they have something,” she said. “Maybe it’s not theirs, but it feels like it’s theirs.”
Freshman Vicente Ponce, who lost his home, said the new school makes him feel like this year is going to be good.
The district held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday. Staff screened attendees at the door and offered hand sanitizer. Everyone wore masks.
“It’s not what we envisioned when we broke ground,” said Superintendent Brent Barry. “For everything we’ve gone through, I just feel really blessed for this new space for kids.”
The fire laid waste to neighborhoods within sight of the school.
“As you listened to the scanner that evening you could hear the firefighters come together and fight that fire and save a building that our community supports and where I know we will gather for many years to come to heal and celebrate,” he said shortly after the fire.
The ceremony was supposed to be outdoors, but a blustery Tuesday with snow to the north and south persuaded school leaders to move it inside. Of course, Wednesday turned out to be a near-perfect day. Bright sunshine poured through the many windows that looked out on snow-touched hills. The school’s spacious commons area offered plenty of room for social distancing, and an open garagelike door let in fresh air from a green patio area.
More than three-dozen people attended the 30-minute ceremony, including school board members, district staff, city officials and community partners. Firefighters and first responders who helped protect the area were special guests.
The ceremony was small compared with the excitement for the new building, but for Principal Toby Walker, the ribbon cutting isn’t the big event anyway.
“I’m excited to be able to see kids’ faces when they walk into the building,” he said. “It’s a great building now, but it’s going to be a school next week.”
Phoenix High School, with nearly 700 students enrolled, will offer in-person learning to all students with the start of the third quarter next week. The grade levels will be split, with sophomores and seniors attending in the morning and freshmen and juniors in the afternoon four days a week.
Walker has been principal for three years, but he started in the district 14 years ago in the old building. He loves the new building’s state-of-the-art equipment and modern technology, but the commons area is his favorite feature. He looks forward to when the pandemic is tamed so that students will be able to mix and hang out there.
“That’s the heart of our building,” he said.
School Board Chair Dawn Watson, an OSBA Board member, said opening a new school is right up near the top of board member pleasures.
Watson, a board member since 2013, was on the long-range facility committee and chair of the bond committee. On Wednesday, she cut the red ribbon tied out front with a pair of gigantic scissors.
“It’s amazing to watch our dream actually coming true with students in the building,” she said.
Like so many, she sees the new school freighted with symbolism.
“It’s a positive light that was really needed in the community, something that the community can celebrate at a time we are still grieving and dealing with trauma,” she said.
The district’s $68 million 2017 bond includes safety, security, seismic and ventilation upgrades around the district, but the high school is the crowning jewel.
Phoenix-Talent built all-new academic spaces attached to the old theater and gym, which will be renovated. The old school will be torn down, and the land turned into fields to replace the ones the new school was built on.
The old school was built in the 1960s and then added onto as needed, most recently in the 1980s. Drab cinderblock walls and a lack of windows caused many a student to compare it to a prison.
The new school has spacious hallways, splashes of color and windows everywhere.
It is also more secure, one of the primary selling points on the bond. The old school had 39 exterior doors. The new building has a common entrance for visitors with a vestibule and security fencing to control access to the rear of the school.
School officials are especially proud of the career and technical education spaces, offering industry-standard, professional equipment for students to learn with.
Students have already been able to try out some of the features. The district has offered limited in-person instruction since the fall and has also set up study times in the school for students to have a quiet place with reliable internet.
Junior Shannon O’Connell said she will feel like a freshman again next week, finding her way around a strange school for the first time.
“It reminds me of those schools you see in the movies,” she said. “It’s so modern and sophisticated.”
O’Connell said it is both comforting and motivating to see that the community cares enough about her education that they built a new school. It carries extra significance now.
“For two hours a day, we get to feel like we are at school again,” she said. “We can use our imagination a bit and pretend we are a normal high school and not surrounded by the aftermath of a fire in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a nice escape.”
The school is a lot more than an escape, though.
“It’s a beacon of hope,” she said. “Just as we remodeled our school, we’ll remodel our town and rise from the ashes.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
The Phoenix-Talent Families Fire Relief Fund is taking donations. OSBA has also created a Wildfire Resources page with links to places to donate to fire victims around the state.