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Watching Phoenix-Talent rise

Leaders of the Phoenix-Talent School District talk about overcoming a year of pandemic and fire
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Brent Barry, superintendent of Phoenix-Talent schools, left, Tiffanie Lambert, assistant superintendent of academics, and Javier Del Rio, assistant superintendent of human resources and business, stand outside the new Phoenix High School.

Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q&A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Brent Barry, Tiffanie Lambert and Javier Del Rio of the Phoenix-Talent School District.

Q: First the pandemic and then the Almeda fire changed life for everyone in the Rogue Valley. As leaders in the Phoenix-Talent School District, how did learning happen this school year?

Brent Barry: After the Sept. 8 fire, we had to make sure our families were OK. We went into crisis response mode. I’m proud of our staff for the outreach that started within hours of the devastation. We set up posts throughout the valley where our families and kids could connect with people they know and trust. We had over 700 students who lost their homes, about 30% of our students. Two weeks later we opened up our high school to comprehensive distance learning. We had 80-plus-percent attendance that first day. This was largely due to the outreach of our staff, getting the technology in their hands, getting the hotspots set up and being able to access that online world. Our relationships with kids and families really helped us navigate and respond to the crisis.

Tiffanie Lambert: Our staff came together and set up ... child care and mental health services at The Expo, where most of our families had evacuated. Eagle Point School District let us use one of their buildings where a lot of our families had doubled up in White City. Our routers that were set up for distance learning burned. We got a great grant from T-Mobile to set up 400 hotspots so students could access their classes. Parents needed child care to get on their feet. Many of our staff lost their homes too, and yet they were out there helping others. And again, it was during a pandemic, so we had to follow safety measures.

Javier Del Rio: At the beginning we had no power, no water, and everyone was in shock. We lost 2,400 homes. “What are we going to do?” We had to make sure that our staff was OK, because they have to deal with all this trauma themselves while helping other people.

Q: It must have been overwhelming to give families hope and guidance as you moved forward.

Brent: It was a heavy burden, it’s still a heavy burden. We have many families who are homeless. There's no guidebook, no playbook, you can't follow a script to respond to a pandemic and then a devastating wildfire. Our kids and families needed to know that the schools care. We had to help them with basic needs and their social and emotional well-being. Then we'll work on the academic piece. It was overwhelming. Rogue Credit Union came in right away, "How many Chromebooks do you need to replace? Here's a grant." United Way stepped up. It energized our staff to see the community rally around our schools and towns. Every time there was a need, somebody was there to fill it.

Tiffanie: A physical symbol of hope is the new high school. On the 9th, roads were closed in Phoenix, everything was still smoking. Brent attempted to get in to look at the schools.

Brent: I couldn’t sleep, I was listening to the scanners. Nobody knew what was standing, nobody knew what had burned. I had to drive by and check. Looking for a way in, finally I found a fireman, "Is Phoenix High School standing?" Retelling it, I get choked up. The fireman said, with exhaustion and tears, “Yes, we saved it!"

Tiffanie: The day after the fire, I was at The Expo wearing a Phoenix High School shirt. People didn't know if their homes were standing, they didn't know if the fire was out. Their first question was, "Is the new high school still standing?" The new Phoenix High is our symbol of hope. Our community built it. It's more than just a building.

Javier: There's so much trauma, "Where's our staff? Who lost their home? Start calling people." It's nonstop, nonstop, trying to reach people, figuring out what happened with their kids, their families, their homes. Every school was saved. It was partly a miracle and partly because firefighters rallied to save them. Our schools are meaningful to this community.

Sept. 20 comes, we still have no power, "Hey, we have to pay people." Our servers were not working but were backed up at the ESD. We had to take printers and recreate a new central office at Orchard Hill Elementary just to get paychecks out.

Q: In all this trauma, are there any silver linings?

Tiffanie: I see how resilient people in our community are, how strong they are in the toughest of circumstances. It is inspiring. We have strong relationships with people, nonprofits and faith-based organizations. You see the good in the world and realize that people are good.

Javier: We got donations from Alaska, from South Africa. "Please, make sure this goes to the families that need it most. We don't care if they're here legally or not, just help the families." We got over $2 million in donations; no strings attached. "Help the families, we don't care, Democrat, Republican whatever, just help them." The level of unity gives me hope. Hope not just for our community, but for our country. People were willing to do whatever it takes to help a small community. That changed us, for sure. People believe in helping others who have suffered.

Brent: Schools are pillars of the community. That was evident hours after the fires. Ultimately the silver lining is people coming together to help.

Q: Are people rebounding? Is Phoenix rising?

Brent: There is hope. Phoenix is rising and will rise higher. It's been challenging to get housing for people in our district. There are going to be three FEMA sites opening up this summer. There are 50 new housing units in Talent, which is providing hope. I am confident that our families will be back, and kids will return to our schools.

Tiffanie: People want to come home. I'm really excited for graduation. If you want to see resiliency, strength and perseverance through the toughest of times, it’s those kids. They finished high school when the average person would have given up. Kids are graduating, they've got a future. Yes, Phoenix is rising.

Q: You seem like an energetic and compassionate team. What do each of you bring to the team?

Javier: If I'm ever in an emergency situation, I want Tiffanie by my side. She would get everything organized and make sure we are taken care of. Brent has always been our voice. He reminded us, "schools are the foundation of this community." He is the voice of calm, "Yes, we're in emergency mode, but we're here to embrace the community." Brent holds the bigger picture of where we are going.

Tiffanie: Javier is calm and thoughtful. He's always asking, “How are you doing? How is our staff doing?" Even when we've been working 20 hours straight, he's always kind.

Brent: I'm so thankful for Tiffanie and Javier. They complement each other so well. Our schools would not be where they are without their professionalism, their expertise and their determination.

Q: How did each of you land in Southern Oregon?

Brent: I was born and raised here. I went through Medford schools. I went off to college and taught a couple of years in Central Oregon and the Portland area. My wife and I returned to Southern Oregon to teach and coach. A few years later my high school English teacher, Jani Hale, called. "Hey, you should come over to Phoenix. I have an assistant principal opening." I wasn’t looking to leave the classroom, but in Jani’s way, "I get it. Just come to the school and walk around." I saw what she knew about that school. I’m so thankful that I took that walk at Phoenix High 17 years ago.

Javier: I was a high school exchange student in Southern Oregon many years ago from Spain. Then I got a scholarship to go to SOU. I earned a degree in economics and moved to Los Angeles. After a few years, I decided to become a teacher. I taught in LA Unified. And then Talent Elementary had an opening in the bilingual program. I started teaching fourth grade at Talent Elementary School in 2000. Our community is so diverse and so close, it really does feel like a family.

Tiffanie: I grew up in California and went to college in Washington. My husband and I moved to Linn County, and I worked at Sweet Home School District for 10 years. We dreamed of moving to Southern Oregon for the weather. We liked the diversity of the area. Steve got a job here and I worked in Eagle Point School District for my second decade. Phoenix-Talent schools have a well-deserved reputation, I joined them four years ago.

Q: What about Southern Oregon keeps you here?

Brent: Sara and I love the outdoors. Southern Oregon has four distinct seasons, and we love them all. The Rogue Valley is getting bigger ... but it's still a small community. Phoenix-Talent schools is one of the most diverse districts in Southern Oregon. That just brings a richness to our school community. And my family's here.

Tiffanie: Recreation. Ski in the morning and golf in the afternoon. The lakes, the Rogue River. A fun fact is that we all own VW camping vans. So, obviously camping is what we all like about the area.

Javier: The Euro van is a way for us to step out into the wilderness so we can take time off to rebuild our strength. I've traveled all over world, and every time I come back, this is home.

Q: What's clearer now that you didn't know a year ago?

Brent: The foundation of everything is really the relationships you have. I knew that before, but we've lived it now ... really lived it.

Tiffanie: People inherently have good intentions. They want what's best for their community and their family. We might differ on methods, but I've really seen the goodness of people coming together and putting aside differences to serve.

Javier: It’s how reliant we are on other people. You cannot function alone. Knowing that you have people to get you through the tough times when you're down and vulnerable is so important. That is clearer than ever.

Q: What would you say to seniors graduating from Phoenix High in 2021?

Tiffanie: I hope they realize how amazing they are and that the bonds with their family, their community and each other will be lasting. I hope they realize what they have been through and recognize the strength they have.

Javier: My hope is that they understand how important every day is because you never know when you're going to lose something: maybe a loved one, maybe a home. Being present for daily experiences is just as important as having an eye 10 years down the road. My hope is that they learn to experience and appreciate what's happening ... right now.

Brent: When a crisis happens, I want them to know that there is a path to a good outcome. It’s taking that first step. Just start and things will come a little easier. These kids have been through tremendous trauma. I hope they've learned when adversity happens, to just keep taking steps forward.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.