Phoenix-Talent School District slowly lifts its community from ashes
Supplies are handed out at the White Mountain Middle School in White City, where many Phoenix-Talent School District families fled the Almeda fire. (Photo courtesy of Eagle Point School District)
Phoenix resident Juan Rocha bought a run-down manufactured home two years ago. A contractor, he gutted and refurbished it himself, from new roof to new carpets, pouring in his savings.
The Almeda fire burnt his home to the ground Sept. 8, taking his storage sheds and tools with it. He has no insurance.
But hope – and something even more tangible – has returned to the Rocha family through the goodwill of neighbors and efforts by the Phoenix-Talent School District.
Since the wildfire devastated the southern Oregon towns of Phoenix and Talent, the district has been trying to find missing families and identify their needs.
Working with the Eagle Point School District, Phoenix-Talent connected Rocha with a donated fifth-wheel travel trailer. With tears of joy, Rocha, his wife, his four children and their dog moved in Tuesday. They have a free RV hook-up at the Jackson County Expo, an evacuation center for the county.
Rocha’s 7-year-old daughter, Ginesis, had been taking the loss of their home the hardest, frequently crying. The trailer helped.
“She was so happy she was jumping,” Rocha said. “She said, ‘Dad, this is going to be our new home.’”
Rocha said he can see how hard the community and the school district are working to help and it gives him hope.
“I tell my wife we will be fine later,” he said. “I don’t know who donated the trailer. Whoever it is I thank the Lord for him.”
County officials report the fire destroyed more than 2,300 residential structures, most of them in the two towns south of Medford. Three deaths have been confirmed.
Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said the school district will be central to restoring the communities.
“It’s a miracle all our schools are still standing,” he said. “That’s going to be for a reason. That’s going to be a pillar of hope moving forward. We know schools are the hubs of our communities.”
Even though immediate basic needs still must be met, school leaders need to start thinking about how to have families return to their communities, Barry said.
The district is tentatively planning to resume comprehensive distance learning for high schoolers on Monday, Sept. 21, with a soft start for K-8 later. The district had just one day of school before the fire tore through the communities.
Assistant Superintendent Javier del Rio said his first look was overwhelming.
“It looks like something you would only see in movies,” he said. “It happens to be your community and you walk by and you know those neighbors who are not there anymore. … Thinking about all that and what is next is just devastating.”
The Phoenix-Talent student body is nearly 40% Latino, and the school staff have been working as interpreters and helping with the emergency response, del Rio said. Some community members are nervous about working with government authorities, and school district staff offer reassuring faces.
Barry said the district has connected with about 90% of its families. He said as much as 50% of district families have lost everything and 25 staff members also lost their homes, roughly 10% of employees.
The district will be looking for help from the Legislature on things such as instructional hours and student funding, he said.
School funding is based on student enrollment, and Phoenix-Talent would like to have its funding locked based on this year’s enrollment. A sudden drop in funding because of all the displaced students could be devastating for a recovering district.
Barry is also talking with the Oregon Department of Education for exceptions to the coronavirus restrictions so that they can offer some in-person learning.
Jackson County infection rates are too high to offer even limited in-person instruction. But distance learning presents imposing hurdles right now. Not only did families lose homes, they also lost the Chromebooks and internet connections crucial for online learning. Families are scattered, making paper packets a problem, and learning conditions are tough when multiple families are crowded in one home.
With physical distancing and health protocols, schools could potentially offer teaching along with shelter and a place to go that is safer than homes and shelters packed with multiple evacuated families.
Barry said the schools will need to make up for lost instruction time and in-person learning offers the most effective opportunity.
District staff are offering support and counseling wherever they can find their families. Staff help fill out paperwork and find resources, and the district contracted with its bus service to provide transportation.
The Phoenix Home Depot was among the places the district sent staff. Residents parked there to walk into the burned areas to check on their homes.
“Many of those families came back with nothing in their hands and sadness and devastation in their faces,” Barry said.
Neighboring districts have been providing meals and logistics for Phoenix-Talent families, even as they deal with their own losses.
Roughly 350 Phoenix-Talent students moved in with friends and family in the Eagle Point School District town of White City, according to Joni Parsons, Eagle Point director of teaching and learning.
The district is providing meals to all children, regardless of their home district. Eagle Point moved a preschool program out of one of its White City buildings and rented it for the year to Phoenix-Talent for minimal cost. The building gives staff a place to coordinate aid and offer a friendly face. It will likely also be used for in-person Phoenix-Talent instruction at some point.
The South Obenchain fire destroyed homes in the Shady Cove area of the Eagle Point School District, including those of at least a half-dozen staff.
Still staff went back to work this week, with plans to open schools Monday, Sept. 21.
Parsons said they are cautiously optimistic about attendance.
“Some families have been through so much they can’t think of anything but where are they going to get their next meal and is the insurance guy going to call back,” she said. “Other families are like ‘Let’s get school started. We want something normal, and we want some sort of routine.’”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA