Umatilla uses clubs, sports and activities to keep students connected
Umatilla Dean of Students April Dirksen works hard to create a family atmosphere so students want to be in school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
On a pleasant March evening, senior Anthony Borchert remained at school because the Umatilla High robotics team was preparing for its next competition.
“Robotics is the only reason I showed up for class today,” he said.
Borchert is head of the build team. The team depends on him, and he must go to class and maintain his grades to participate.
Despite being in a high-poverty area, the Umatilla School District had an 81.7 percent graduation rate for 2016-17 – 5 percentage points above the Oregon average of 76.7 percent. Part of Umatilla’s strategy is to get students involved with clubs, activities and sports any way possible so they stay connected to school.
After Borchert’s parents split up his sophomore year, robotics dangled a lifeline, pulling him toward graduation.
“I didn’t really have any motivation to do anything,” he said. “When robotics season came around, it kind of brought me out of my funk.”
Activities and more activities
As a student raced out Umatilla High’s front door, Dean of Students April Dirksen asked whether he would be going out for baseball. He said he had to work, but Dirksen needled him that activities are more important than having a cool car. She’s worried he may drift away from school this year.
No sooner had she finished talking to him than she pivoted to another student. That girl had moved from another district, and Dirksen got her signed up for her student leadership group, known as the Associated Student Body.
“Within days she had (connected) with a great group of girls and was working on activities,” Dirksen said.
The ASB, as it is known, has grown to more than 40 students under Dirksen and is responsible for planning school activities and creating positive school culture.
While Dirksen spoke, a group of students replaced a camping scene in the school’s main entry area with an Easter-themed backdrop. An installation there had become a popular social media selfie backdrop. Dirksen saw an opportunity and told the ASB to periodically change the look.
“The involvement allows them to build connections to more than just a school from 7 to 3,” she said. “It becomes a home and a family that they want to be a part of and work hard together.”
Umatilla High senior Anthony Borchert (red cap) wants to become a career and technical education teacher at Umatilla so he can mentor other students on robotics teams. “It pulled me out of a dark place,” he says of the robotics team. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Superintendent Heidi Sipe started the robotics team in 2011. She knew nothing about robotics, but she saw the potential for student connection.
The team has 42 members this year, and it’s not just about engineering and electronics.
The robotics team has six groups: build, programming, scouting, marketing, film and logistics. Team members must write essays, give speeches, meet local officials and professionals, shoot films, and create marketing plans to drum up community support and compete for awards. They have social media campaigns, such as the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign to encourage female engineers. The logistics team must figure out transportation and related issues such as meals on the road.
“It’s a lot more than building robots,” said sophomore Patty Burres, a build team member. “You learn things and make connections.”
Umatilla makes joining a club as easy as possible, with no fees for activities and sports. Umatilla supports academic clubs as well as groups such as a broadcasting club, an anime club and a vegetarian club.
“Any kid can start a club; we don’t care,” Sipe said.
Juan Atilano spent much of his high school career getting in trouble, but his senior year he decided to turn it around. He fell into a conversation with Sipe and told her he was thinking about starting a car club, just to hang out at school.
Sipe told him she would sponsor it if he could get five members. Atilano signed up about 20 members, and Sipe features prominently on the club’s T-shirt. They held a car show and donated the money to their class.
“Mrs. Dirksen tells me, ‘You’ve changed a lot,’” Atilano said.
Senior Joel Escamilla nearly dropped out but now he is an enthusiastic school supporter. He played football and then joined the cheerleading team as a stuntman after a friend encouraged him.
“Having support,” he said, “we can pretty much accomplish anything.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA