2019 in education: Hands-on is the key
Editor's note: This is the first of an eight-part series showing what's in store for 2019 in Jackson County.
Even as the chill of December air cuts deeper and lingers longer, at the site of the defunct Butte Falls fish hatchery, Chris Mathas spends hours hammering away at a wooden structure.
Rising 12 feet above a pair of 3-foot-deep elongated concrete raceways that were once home to cultures of fingerling trout and salmon, the greenhouse Mathas is constructing nail by nail will one day be home to different life forms: various kinds of plant species native to the surrounding area.
The Natural Resource Center will allow students from Butte Falls Elementary School to learn life science concepts by raising the plants. The goal is to then replant them in the surrounding forest, establishing an arboretum where the public can take bus tours.
Mathas has to finish the greenhouse before any of that can take shape, however. With the long hours he spends hammering and hauling, cleaning and painting, his wife has begun to call herself an "NRC widow."
"It's a project worth doing," the teacher and former construction contractor said. "That’s how I find the time to do it."
Time, effort, sweat, meetings and money — all are necessary components to physically build a future for students through new facilities. And from the Butte Falls fish hatchery to an industrial building in Central Point to the corner of Wes Howard Memorial Park in northwest Medford, educators of varying stripes are expecting to see their respective building efforts come to fruition in the new year.
Natural Resource Center
In Butte Falls, the process to repurpose its historic fish hatchery, where dreams were lost to budget cuts and catastrophic bacterial infection, is one that has entailed significant time and persistence. Mathas has been leading the school district’s efforts to transform the property into a Natural Resource Center where not only local K-12 students, but also students up through the graduate level can learn concepts through hands-on work.
“I think the story here is going to be pretty interesting in the next couple years,” Mathas told the Mail Tribune in 2016, the second year after his hiring.
Partners who have hopped on board with the project seem to agree with him, as the NRC has picked up support both locally and statewide.
The polycarbonate skin that will enclose the native species greenhouse, for example, was paid for by a Bureau of Land Management Title II grant. Grants from the Gordon Elwood Foundation, the Carpenter Foundation and the Oregon Community Foundation are funding development of the aquaponics system — in which fish and plants exist in a mutually beneficial relationship to keep each other fed — due to be installed in the main fish hatchery building by the end of 2019.
Graduate students from Southern Oregon University are conducting water studies at and near the site, in line with the NRC’s recent zoning change to a Forest Research and Experimentation Facility. In addition to the students observing potential silt buildup in nearby Ginger Creek as it might relate to a nearby logging site, a second group is monitoring the flow from Big Butte Springs. The data will help inform the city of Butte Falls as it considers whether or not to contract with a company that wants to bottle the water.
Butte Falls high school and middle school students are shadowing the graduate students, learning skills such as establishing a cross-section of the creekbed.
Mathas also took the lead on repurposing the residential structures on the three acres of the site that once belonged to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife — the final acres that the school had to procure to get the renovation project moving.
He’s scraped off lead paint and removed asbestos from the walls. When the time came to paint the structures that will house commercial kitchen space, a multipurpose classroom and an emergency youth shelter, he chose pumpkin orange and squash yellow.
“Everybody would have chosen gray,” he said. “We’re not turning it into a prison up here.”
Some of the work already has been completed. The school established a nationally registered western monarch butterfly waystation near the entrance to the property; dozens of students worked with local groups to plant 500 native pollinator species in October to encourage butterfly populations. Several of Mathas’ manufacturing students working toward welding certifications will be making metal brackets to support a 30-by-30-foot outdoor classroom, also due to be finished by next school year.
Not all the labor is volunteer or happening in the context of class work. Mathas hopes to find funds to pay students to care for the site’s food forest, also set to be completed in 2019, and the monarch waystation during the summer.
“We approach this from different angles to make sure students are actually learning and they’re learning something that’s useful,” Mathas said. “Whether they’re going to be potentially going to college or they’re going to the workforce, we want to make sure they’re prepared for whatever choice they make.”
About 10 miles to the Northwest, Central Point School District is also renovating one of its community’s historic structures to help students gain hands-on skills and industry certifications.
“It’s a significant industrial building in Central Point,” said Superintendent Samantha Steele about the former Crater Iron building, located along Highway 99 only a few minutes’ walk from Crater High School. “It’s hard to miss.”
School district officials chose the Crater Iron property to house their “makerspace,” which they’re calling CraterWorks, not only because of its location, but also because the 21,000 square feet available will give them plenty of room to include the myriad facilities planned.
By fall 2019, Steele said the makerspace will include an industrial kitchen, a woodshop, a metalshop, spaces to produce podcasts and labs for computer-assisted design.
It will kick off its role as a community space hosting Saturday markets during season in March, when it will provide space for the Oregon Cheese Festival, hosted next year by Rogue Creamery.
“We’re hoping to include our students, we’ll certainly include the community, but that will be kind of the unveiling of CraterWorks,” Steele said.
Central Point School District, similarly to Butte Falls and other local school districts, has increasingly invested in project-based and hands-on learning. Several of its elementary schools have their own makerspaces, and the three high schools have facilities that accommodate other types of career and technical education.
“Most of all, we want to assure that we have the kind of facility that will truly allow students opportunities for authentic learning, will allow students to develop the skills that they need to go on to postsecondary education, to the workforce, or what we’re seeing more of, which is kind of the earn-and-learn model,” Steele said.
The school district also partnered with local nonprofit D.I.R.T. to form a membership model available for the community to also participate in CraterWorks. Steele said the goal is to enable people from all areas nearby to use the space and facilities to create. She envisions business owners mentoring students in the facility.
“This is a space that’s designed to serve students, community and industry,” she said.
In Medford, a charter school is raising a building on land once earmarked for a sports park, had its original owner had his way.
“I get more excited every time I’m there,” said Sheryl Zimmerer, executive director of Logos Public Charter School. She does a weekly walk-through with contractors at the site where the new school is rising: first the foundation, then the steel skeleton and most recently, walls, ceilings and windows.
In August 2017, Zimmerer said she hoped to have students in the new building by one year later. What followed, however, was a slew of delays, including bureaucratic issues in transferring the land that the Wes Howard Memorial Foundation donated to the school.
But as 2018 draws to a close, the odds that the school will meet its new goal — to have everyone in the building by next school year — are increasingly favorable.
“Doing that while trying to run a school while in the middle of the school year has been definitely a challenge,” Zimmerer said.
The new school building will include rooms for science, music and special education, as well as meeting spaces and general use rooms for teachers to meet with students. Natural light and clouds suspended from the ceiling are intended to give the inside an outdoor feel.
Outdoors, the school will feature a large, fenced play area outdoors, as well as a school garden, covered patio area and bike racks.
Zimmerer said she is posting regularly on Logos’ social media accounts about the building updates.
“We get more reactions from the posts about the building than just about anything else,” she said. “People are so excited.”