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Spring grind

Julian Avina headed into his extended spring break in March with three courses standing between him and his high school diploma.

The geometry, algebra and language arts classes the Eagle Point High School senior had planned to finish this spring haven’t looked as expected before Oregon schools were shuttered. His lessons have come through videos uploaded by his teachers to Google Classroom, and his questions had to be conveyed by email or over Zoom videoconferencing.

“I didn’t really know what to feel,” Avina said. “At some point I started to get a little bit more nervous. I would start to think about it and say, ‘Am I still going to finish?’”

By now, two months after the 18-year-old left his classrooms for the last time, that anxiety has all but transformed into relief. He is about to finish the final requirements for his last two courses. Though the final stage of his path has involved some unorthodox steps, the journey is almost complete.

Avina hasn’t been alone as a senior hammering through his final coursework from a distance since mid-March. More than 30 of his peers at Eagle Point High School entered the school closure in a similar situation, and in every other school district in Jackson County, a handful of seniors have been staring down — and in best cases, clearing — their final hurdles to get over the finish line.

When the Oregon Department of Education released its guidance on seniors and diploma requirements to schools and school districts in April, the class of 2020 was essentially sorted into two groups.

Seniors who met their credit requirements for a diploma and who were in good academic standing when the closure began March 16 were counted as graduates at that point.

But seniors not in good academic standing were required to continue working on their required courses. Spring term classes are being graded on a pass/fail basis.

Though the methods of delivery for instruction and grading are different than in a usual school year, the needs and goals staff work toward with students remain the same, said Donnie Frazier, principal of South Medford High School.

“Honestly, the work isn’t different,” he said. “It’s just more difficult. Everything we do has more steps, which is more challenging. We can’t get all the people in the same room.”

Frazier described a situation in which he wound up turning to family members who had already graduated from South to reach the senior, who hadn’t responded to any communication from his teachers during the closure for nearly two months. A defeated feeling had effectively kept him from responding, Frazier said.

“He was so frustrated and overwhelmed, he wouldn’t even have the conversation with us so we could help him get some help,” he said. “He needed to hear that from somebody he trusts. Now he’s responding to the people who have been trying to help him for two months.”

Medford staff are sticking largely with digital and virtual means of communication: calls, texts and emails.

Eagle Point has continued its practice of in-person visits with students who need more support or who haven’t been keeping up with their work.

Late in the morning of May 8, Avina stood on the front porch of his family’s home in White City with language arts teacher Jacob Apgar. The two briefly sat down together and peered at a Chromebook monitor as they discussed assignments and schedules.

A few feet away from where the teacher and student were talking, Ryan Marrs, graduation coach, waited and watched. His job also involves such meetings with students. Doing it now only via home visits and virtual means is far less preferable, he said.

“It’s so much easier when we’re in school,” he said.

If you ask Avina what’s been keeping him motivated to get through the final steps even while warm weather and the lack of a structured school day present challenges, he’ll cite Marrs’ influence.

The two met when Avina was a junior, and his grades and overall interest in school had made on-time graduation less of a likelihood.

“He was one of the people who really pushed me toward (graduation),” Avina said. “When I felt like I had no one else, I had Mr. Marrs to depend on.”

Tyler Ryangelling, a senior finishing his final math classes, said Marrs has also inspired and encouraged him.

“I pick the people I choose that I trust a lot in my life,” he said. “I mean, I respect everyone, but he has this kind of like aura that man, if I get it done, he’ll be proud of me. He got me to get a lot more done my junior year.”

The two students’ comments underscore a point made by Jaime Harrt, assistant principal at South Medford High School — that relationships are the most valuable currency during the closure as students wrestle with low motivation, work responsibilities and other obstacles on the road to their strong finish.

“Maybe they’re working, or maybe they’re taking care of family members, and so the priorities aren’t, ‘Let’s get on FaceTime or Zoom, do my credit retrieval work,’” she said. “So that’s been a real challenge. ... One of the things that’s been glaringly obvious, in my opinion, is that there really is nothing that replaces the magic of the teacher.”

With his diploma nearly earned, Avina is almost ready to look ahead to his next move: working and pursuing his barber’s license.

“I want to see what else is out there,” he said.

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

Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch Eagle Point High School language arts teacher Jacob Apgar works with Julian Avina, 18, on classwork Friday.