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A school that feels more like camp

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePiper Tamler helps Braedon Warren and Tegan Ellis create wood products during Talent Middle School’s summer session.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCaesar Roman-Hernandez works on his solar powered car at Talent Middle School.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAbby Corona and Caberien Graham investigate a fake crime scene at Talent Middle School.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAbby Corona plays her ukulele at Talent Middle School.
Phoenix-Talent district gives kids a chance to learn in a relaxed atmosphere

TALENT — Long ago, bogged down by the emptiness of severe boredom, the goddess of food looked down upon Japan from Mount Olympus and spied a man sitting alone in his boat in the water. Struck suddenly by a feeling of purpose she had not experienced in years, the goddess ordered the man — Jim something — to bring her seaweed, fish and rice. And that is where sushi came from.

This sushi origin story came from the mind of Talent Middle School seventh-grader Emma Starrett, 12, who learned about different storytelling styles in Julie Stinson’s Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales class, which is part of the Phoenix-Talent School District’s summer school curriculum.

Starrett admits that she didn’t exactly jump for joy when she found out she was headed to summer school, especially after enduring a school year tainted by both fire (her house burned down) and COVID-19. But now that she’s made some new friends and is having fun in a classroom again, she’s had a change of heart.

“I didn’t necessarily want to be here; I kind of had to be here,” she said. “But I’m glad that I am.”

Starrett is one of 93 Talent Middle School students and 451 students overall who are taking part in the district’s summer school program, which is more robust than ever thanks to an injection of state grants designed to help students recover lost connections, learning and, in the case of high-schoolers, credits. Phoenix-Talent SD received $277,168 for summer academic support (high school), $408,118 for summer enrichment (K-8) and $297,148 for summer child care.

The Oregon Department of Education’s stated purpose of the Summer Academic Support Grants is “to redress the disruptions caused to students by distance learning for the past school year,” and there are few school districts in the state that suffered more “disruptions” than Phoenix-Talent. The Almeda fire destroyed 2,500 structures last Sept. 8 in Talent, Phoenix and parts of Ashland and Medford, and 335 of the district’s 2,700 students were displaced by the fire — for most of the school year, those displaced students were transported to and from school from outside the district’s boundaries.

Tasked with developing a summer program unlike any in the district’s history was Samara Guyars, who was hired on a contract basis — during the school year, she works for the Eagle Point School District as a high school language arts and social studies teacher. Guyars said her goal was to put together a version of summer school that students would look forward to, not dread.

“This is more campy,” she said during a break in the action at Talent Middle School Tuesday. “Even in my interview when they were asking me kind of my vision of what I wanted to do with this, I said I really wanted to make it more camp style and less school style. And even parents that have been calling in and saying, ‘My kid doesn’t really want to go to summer school,’ I have to explain to them, this isn’t school like you imagine school. We don’t have any worksheets, we don’t have any textbooks, we’re not doing any of that. We are doing academics, but the academics are kind of shielded in a lot of project-based learning, a lot of fun stuff.”

The list of classes reflect Guyars’ vision. Options for middle-schoolers include subjects like solar-powered car design, analysis of history through movies, Lego robot building; and for elementary students, robotic solar bugs and renewable energy, gardening and a unit on food studies. The district also partnered with local nonprofit Talent Maker City, which is providing all the afternoon curriculum. Some of those include go-kart building, welding, woodturning, social media and video design, pottery, blacksmithing, mural painting and laser engraving.

“The kids don’t even recognize it as academics because of the way that we’re doing it, and that’s by design,” Guyars said. “So I was tasked with making it fun, giving the kids connections. What I tasked the teachers with was: What’s your passion in your subject area, if you don’t have any standards, you don’t have any tests, you don’t have any of that? What is a passion you have within your subject area that you can share with kids? And the teachers came up with some amazing things.”

The educational value is clear, but some of the classes go a little deeper. Abigail Corona’s family lost their home of 17 years and most of their possessions in the fire when their home in the Talent Mobile Estates burned down. In one of her summer classes, Corona, an incoming eighth-grader, built a ukulele to replace the one she lost in the fire.

“We had a kit and had to put everything together and file and sand everything, so it was safe to use,” she said. “And once we put it all together we … started designing what we wanted to put on it.”

Some students painted theirs, but Corona decided to decorate hers with torch-burnt accents. She also used a soldering iron to etch in her name, the treble clef symbol on the face of the headstock and, on the back, a crown — “because in Spanish, corona means crown.”

The final step was to install the strings and tune it. A video posted on the district’s Facebook page shows Corona strumming and singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” She says for her, summer school has been “productive.”

“It’s pretty fun to have something to actually go to,” she said, “instead of just sitting at home.”

Corona is also part of a group of students in another class who are designing four signs to be placed along the Bear Creek Greenway. One of the signs will explain why a manzanita tree was chosen as the subject of a forthcoming sculpture exhibit. Why not a fir or pine? Actually, Corona and her classmates explain, the manzanita was chosen specifically for the symbolic weight it carries here. It’s resilient to fire. As in, it burns but comes back strong.

Other classes were designed to be just plain fun and appear to have succeeded. Sitting by himself in Daane Pieter’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics class, Cesar Roman-Hernandez, an incoming seventh-grader, was hunched over an eight-inch-long, wood-framed, solar-powered car Tuesday. He had already worked out the best gear-torque ratio for next week’s 20-meter race and had run it through three field tests. With a tiny Mexican flag perched on one side like an antenna, his mini roadster already looked ready for race day.

“We teach them ratio and mathematics, we teach them some of the chemical reaction stuff that goes on in chemistry,” Pieter said, explaining why he believes classes like his are so important. “But when do we actually get to a point where we can show them how a solar panel works, or how gear ratio actually affects a vehicle, or what are the components of electricity? And doing this kind of thing in middle school gets them really ready for high school, and that’s where it’s all at.”

Then there’s the Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales class, the stories from which will soon be bound into book form and given to the students to take home. Before putting pen to page, students were introduced to each storytelling style. They also watched a modern Disney classic (“Hurcules”) and started to read the first book in the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series — that was all it took to hook Starrett, who was on page 250 of Book 1 as of Tuesday.

In her Talent Maker City social media takeover class, Starrett and a few of her peers were taught how to create engaging posts then granted access to the nonprofit’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. On Thursday, the class used one post to highlight a CSI class. “There has been a murder!” it read, above three pictures, one showing a dummy that appears to have been finished off by a pair of scissors. “Don’t worry, it’s not a real body.”

“So, basically,” Starrett said, “we go around with iPads and we go to the other Talent Maker City groups and we just take pictures of what they’re doing and we interview them about what they’re doing, and if it’s fun. And then we post it on Facebook and Instagram. They explained to us perspective. So to bend down or get above, or really up close or far away. So we have a lot of pictures with people’s faces, if they want, or we have some with just what their hands are doing. Our teachers helped us with (the text). So, we explain what they’re doing.”

One of Starrett’s Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales classmates was 13-year-old Aaron Chavez, who also lost his home in the fire and now lives in Central Point. One of his favorite classes was one in which he built a pipe-cleaner tower and stacked his creation up against classmates’ in a competition-style event.

Like Starrett, Chavez says he’s happy to be back in school, without physical distancing restrictions (“that was a disaster”). Unlike Starrett, Chavez would fast-forward past the next two months if he could. To those who lived through the pandemic, his reason for looking forward to school likely rings true.

“I get to stay a little bit away from my family,” he explained, “because sometimes it drives me crazy.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829.