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Educator, producer work to open residential school

A Southern Oregon educator and a film producer have taken steps to establish a residential high school in hopes of improving the lives of the state's homeless, foster and adjudicated teenagers by teaching them filmmaking.

Steve Pine, regional coordinator for career and technical education at the Southern Oregon Education Service District, and Sam Baldoni, owner of Inspired Films Inc., hope to launch the Oregon Youth Academy for grades nine through 12 as early as fall 2009.

Homeless, foster and adjudicated youth are among the most likely to drop out of high school, Pine said. Dropouts cost society millions in welfare, criminal prosecution, incarceration and lost wages over time, Pine said.

"How can we build a future for kids who have had no opportunities, no parenting, no mentoring, who bounce around from foster home to foster home?" Pine said. "Then, they age out. They get pregnant. They're on welfare. They go to jail. It adds up. What we can do is open an academy and take in 200 to 400 at a time, change their lives and in turn, they can help others."

The idea for the school sprouted 10 years ago when Pine began to see a need for a theme-based residential program for some the state's most at-risk youth.

Early in his career as a teacher at McLoughlin Middle School, he recognized how a hobby or an interest could attract students to school who might otherwise skip or drop out.

One student at McLoughlin habitually skipped classes until Pine started chatting with him about motorcycles. The boy was so excited about talking about motorcycles he began going to school so he could do more of it, Pine said.

About four years ago, Baldoni began envisioning opening a video production school for high school students that could double as a studio to lease out to filmmakers who shoot scenes in Oregon.

Kathy McCollum, school improvement director at the Southern Oregon ESD, played matchmaker to help bring their ideas together after Pine was hired earlier this year at the ESD.

Opening the school is a multimillion-dollar venture for which Pine and Baldoni will have to secure a building and grants, donations and public and private partnerships.

The school would provide instruction in video production and mental health and drug and alcohol treatment and counseling.

Foster children could choose to live at the school in lieu of a placement with a foster family. The school would also receive per-pupil funding from the state. It would receive additional state funding for adjudicated youth as well.

Another source of revenue would stem from renting out the school's studio to filmmakers interested in filming in Oregon.

The idea of thematic job-to-work instruction is gaining ground across the nation.

One example is a public-private effort in east Portland to open a charter school for high school students interested in architecture, construction and engineering. The Oregon Building Congress Academy for Architecture, Construction and Engineering is slated to open next fall. Its founder, Dick O'Connor, has served as a consultant for Pine in his effort to open the Oregon Youth Academy.

Pine and Baldoni's hope is that the film school will engage at-risk pupils and show them that academics can be applied to a job they're interested in doing.

Attending the school would be voluntary. Core subjects such as writing and math would be part of the curriculum.

"As they're doing hands-on activities, they're getting the basics," Pine said.

Pine and Baldoni want to locate the school in Jackson County where they both live. While the school would be available to students statewide, it would fill a need in Southern Oregon for a film studio and for a residential high school program, Pine said.

The Medford School District has the second-highest homeless student population in the state, trailing only Portland.

School dropouts are four times more likely to be covered by the Oregon Health Plan, more than twice as likely to be unemployed and if employed, earn low wages on average, Pine said.

About 79 percent of Oregon adult prisoners were dropouts at the time of incarceration.

"The culminating factors of how much is being spent nationwide on foster, adjudicated and homeless youth in the long run, and the increasing interest in having educational alternatives because, in part, of dropout rates and disinterested youth indicate the clientele are there, the political climate is there and industry is willing to partner with educators," Pine said. "Everything is ripe."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.