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Forging a future

Charles Oakley is grinning.

A six-inch flame dances from the tip of an oxyacetylene torch grasped in the Butte Falls Charter School senior’s right hand. He holds a cattle brand in the other.

“We’re just starting to do stuff like this,” Oakley says after explaining to a classmate beside him the steps to enlarge the metal brand.

When the project is done, the rancher who owns the brand will have an improved tool to identify his livestock. Meanwhile, Oakley and his classmates in this welding course at the high school gain experience with an additional kind of metalworking. That exposure is especially valuable for students hoping to pursue a career in the trade. Oakley says he hopes to pursue welding at Rogue Community College in the fall.

The boys’ teachers, Chris Mathas and Doug Smith, keep a close eye on their students while they work. Vision is critical here. Though the students wear protective eye gear when they’re welding, every day during the 10-minute break, Mathas checks their eyesight, whether they are dizzy or dehydrated, and makes sure they can read a few lines out loud from their welding textbook.

Vision is critical for Mathas, too — in a different way. He must look beyond this class to the school’s broader ambitions: turning a historic fish hatchery a mile and a half away into Butte Falls’ Natural Resource Center.

The center is intended to grow as an outdoor education site, with curriculum designed to integrate the natural with the instructional.

“This adds a new dynamic to the education process,” Mathas says. “(Butte Falls) is a place to shine. This is a place that has true needs that are easily identifiable, and so you can apply yourself.”

His students have practiced welding angled, load-bearing steel brackets used to connect and strengthen ceilings and walls. So far, they’ve been making them for grades. Eventually, however, they’ll be making brackets that will support the timbers of an outdoor pavilion planned for installation at the Natural Resource Center.

The NRC, as the community refers to it, is a years-long project that began when then-superintendent of Butte Falls Schools Dave Courtney and other city leaders put in a bid for the Butte Falls fish hatchery property when it was closed down.

From 2009 through 2011, the school shaped its idea and looked for funding sources while awaiting the final say on the hatchery being closed and whether the school’s proposal would be approved. It acquired the 10 acres owned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2012, and just recently was approved for the last three acres of property, which had to be distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The center is intended to be a resource for all subjects, which requires a broader mindset than simply focusing on meeting state standards.

Mary Casey, an English teacher at Butte Falls Charter School, says she already has been using field trips to the NRC site as opportunities for students to practice writing expository essays on what they learn.

Partnerships are vital to supporting both future and present hands-on educational opportunities in Butte Falls. The school works with the Medford Water Commission, ODFW, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.

In the welding class, Smith is one of those partners. A retired boilermaker and welder, he now holds the title of instructor, teaching high school students techniques so their work meets industry standards.

“I thought I’d give the kids a hand, because I am 77 years old,” Smith says. “But I like kids.”

Mathas says the welding course and the focus on outdoor education are ways of encouraging students to see the breadth of learning opportunities available to them.

“The idea is to keep them coming to high school long enough for them to see as many options for career choices as there are,” he says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Doug Smith, left, shows Butte Falls Charter School student Coy Staten how to make a weld Thursday afternoon. - ANDY ATKINSON / MAIL TRIBUNE
Butte Falls Charter School student Coy Staten makes a weld during a high school shop class Thursday afternoon. - ANDY ATKINSON / MAIL TRIBUNE