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Sneak peek at school in the woods

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Work at the Butte Falls Natural Resource Center is ongoing, but the rural charter school is extending an invitation to the wider Rogue Valley to check in on the progress.

“We’re proud of what’s going on here, and we think that there is a hands-on approach to learning here that is unusual,” said Phil Long, superintendent of the 223-student school district for the past three years. “And the environment specifically is terrific for that here.”

In the 10 years since school district officials began planning to transform the historic Butte Falls Hatchery into an educational campus, blueprints have become buildings, lead paint has been removed, debris has been hauled away, and grants have been written — to name just a few of the tasks that have been checked off the list.

Chris Mathas, the project lead, has spent hundreds of hours on those 13 acres and many more in meetings, on the phone and exchanging emails with a wide range of partner agencies and organizations involved in helping the facility take shape.

Other staff and students have also contributed labor and time painting, hauling, chopping and planting.

“It’s moving forward strongly at this point,” Mathas said in December 2018, just before winter weather slowed the pace of work for a few months. Warmer days lent fresh speed to the building, though the school continues to wait for permits to restore a couple of residential structures on the property.

Prospective students, parents and others from outside Butte Falls have a chance to see the changes for themselves at an open house Thursday night. It will begin in the Butte Falls Elementary School gymnasium at 6 p.m. and include a tour of all three campuses: elementary school, high school and the Natural Resource Center.

“It’s a way for us to showcase our program, to have all our teachers here,” Long said.

The K-12 charter school is nearly 16 miles up Butte Falls Highway from where it branches off of Highway 62 between Eagle Point and Shady Cove. The Natural Resource Center pulls in involvement from well beyond there, wrapping in agencies across the region and state.

The Bureau of Land Management, for example, is partnering with the school on its native pollinator project. Plants will be grown inside a greenhouse Mathas built over long concrete raceways where fingerling trout and salmon were once raised.

The Butte Falls Fish Hatchery, opened in 1915 and operated for 96 years by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, closed for good in 2011 in the wake of needed improvements and devastating bacterial infections that killed hundreds of fish.

The charter school acquired the property in pieces — first 10 acres from ODFW, and eventually the remaining three acres from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mathas and other school district officials have seen the property as a place to facilitate many different types of hands-on education, including working with Southern Oregon University students on water-quality research and growing a food forest.

Monday afternoon, Natalie Wilson’s high school science class was busy watering, fertilizing and planting in the food forest, where they’re growing fruit trees and herbs, even cultivating mushroom spores in tree trunks.

“They are pretty much ready for a nap after lunch,” said Wilson, who is finishing her first year teaching at the school. “So it’s great that we get to get them out here.”

She said some students who don’t consistently shine in a classroom thrive in the outdoor setting.

“They live out here, so they already know a lot of this stuff and get to actually see how there can be some economic and community benefits by working out here,” she said.

Butte Falls Charter School’s open house will run 6 to 8 p.m., beginning at the elementary school gym, Thursday, May 16. Find more information at https://bit.ly/2VAkB3B.

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

Learning is fun in the food forestThumbnail
Isaiah Womelsdorf, 14, Bute Falls Charter School, works on a fence post at the Butte Falls Natural Resources Center on Monday.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune