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Talent Elementary principal praised for Almeda fire response

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneHeather Lowe, the principal of Talent Elementary, visits with students on Monday.
Hired a few weeks before the Sept. 8 blaze, Principal Heather Lowe Rogers quickly coordinated plans to help her staff and students get back to instruction

TALENT — Sept. 8, 2020 was intended to be a day of welcome, not panic, for the teachers, students and parents of Talent Elementary School.

Staff was available on-site to hand out Chromebooks to students to use at the start of the school year, since learning was still virtual due to the pandemic.

Then, around mid-morning, Principal Heather Lowe Rogers received a call from Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry informing her that something big was happening: a fire, coming from the north end of Ashland.

“I looked outside and my staff were beginning to gather outside in the parking lot,” Lowe Rogers said. “Watching the plume [of smoke] go from gray to black was really concerning. We quickly knew it was an emergency. We were able to evacuate the building by 1:30 p.m. I think I was the last one out of here at 1:45 p.m.”

It’s that kind of leadership that’s gained the TES principal praise among her subordinates, including Shannon Kuriyama, a fifth-grade two-way immersion teacher at TES.

“What a rough first day as the principal,” she said.

Barry noted Lowe Rogers’ leadership abilities, saying she was the right person at the right time for the job.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise when we had some change going on in the district, we placed people in a position where they could be successful, no matter what circumstance or tragedy,” Barry said.

Lowe Rogers’ tenure with the school is notable not only for the fact that she had just started her new job a month before the infamous Almeda fire, but the way she problem-solved for one of the Phoenix-Talent schools hardest-hit by it. Eighty-five students lost homes to the fire. Nine of them transferred to schools within the district and 15 transferred out.

Through it all, Lowe Rogers has been a leader, her boss said.

“She really just relied on her skills as a person and really just a can-do attitude on what needs to be done,” Barry said.

Before becoming principal, Lowe Rogers taught at Talent for about a decade before transitioning in a district administrative role managing grants. During that time, she got an administrative license.

“I always knew I wasn’t going to stay in the classroom my whole career, even though I love students,” Lowe Rogers said. “My drive in life is how do I serve more and better.”

That license would land her an assistant principal position at Talent Middle School before heading over to take the reins of the elementary school in the summer of 2020, when several other personnel moves were made.

“It was a very organic, natural discussion about where we should move the players,” Lowe Rogers said.

Fire response

Once staff knew there was a fire, Phoenix-Talent and TES leadership gathered the next day and worked to account for all of its students and families.

“We dumped everybody’s class lists into Google sheets and we called on our staff to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to find out where everybody is,’” Lowe Rogers said. “Then we — principals — were calling the staff and saying, ‘are you safe?’”

Kuriyama evacuated to Medford and stayed at another teacher’s house for days. Her house was fine, but her parents’ home burned to the ground.

“That was a very somber morning,” Kuriyama said, adding that a third of her students lost their homes.

But Kuriyama would return to TES to help account for everyone in three days. Some students who lost their Chromebooks in the fire had to have them replaced.

“We went [from teaching] to being relief workers really fast,” Kuriyama said.

Talent Elementary School, in coordination with the district, also connected displaced students with shelter and established “learning hubs” so they could connect to the internet during the year’s virtual learning period.

TES staff personally delivered school and living supplies to families across the valley after the fire. The school also received a fair amount of community donations to give to families.

“People were coming to us saying, ‘I have this resource,’ so we were playing middle man,” Lowe Rogers said. “We are so blessed in this valley just to have supportive people.”

While it might have seemed like a herculean task for TES to be so heavily involved in a disaster response plan, Lowe Rogers said, “we were really poised and able to be that service.”

“For Talent specifically, it’s such a tight-knit community, the staff here are family,” Lowe Rogers said. “For us, there was no other answer except to show up for our students.”

The fire’s spread and the district’s response to it would mean TES would not start instruction for another two weeks.

When students finally resumed instruction for the 2020-21 school year, families were “grateful,” according to Lowe Rogers.

“We understood pretty quickly that the sooner we could turn to some sort of normalcy, routine structure for them, the better,” she said.

A year out from Almeda

TES is still down almost 100 students since the fire occurred, according to Lowe Rogers. But the downturn isn’t all due to Almeda, she said; the pandemic is also to blame.

“We’re doing everything we can to hold on to them, [while] respecting the fact that that might not be what’s right for that family,” Lowe Rogers said. “I think a lot of them have chosen to go elsewhere.”

Finding housing and living supplies for current TES families is still an issue, Lowe Rogers said, but recent efforts such as the Gateway project — a community of manufactured homes for those displaced by the fire — could help with immediate needs.

“That’s kind of our latest mission is making sure the families we know who are still displaced in hotels or in campers, making sure they’re first on the application list to get housing,” Lowe Rogers said. “It’s an ongoing effort, and it’s definitely changed the role and responsibility of our staff, but I don’t think anybody would have it any other way.”

Because class sizes were smaller this year, the school had to “repurpose” some of its staff to make it comparable to similar institutions, per federal guidelines, since funding for Oregon schools is based on enrollment.

“When we first started, one of our kindergarten classes had eight kids in it,” she said. “That is not comparable or financially responsible for us to do. We don’t lose staff, we just repurpose them to be a little more equitable.”

School may be different this year because it’s being done in-person as opposed to virtually, but some students have fallen behind academically because of how their families were impacted by the fire.

“I almost guarantee you some kids fell behind because it was just so hard,” Lowe Rogers said. “That doesn’t mean we didn’t do everything we possibly could, and we still aren’t [back to normal].”

The aftermath of the fire and the pandemic has caused many TES staff members to feel fatigued, she added.

“It’s tiring,” Lowe Rogers said. “For me, being the leader of the building and being mindful of where the staff are, so they show up feeling supported and valued, that’s my number one job right now.”

Regardless of those stress factors, “staff continues to demonstrate cohesive determination to serve students,” she wrote in an email to the Mail Tribune.

Barry praised Lowe Rogers for being cool under pressure.

“There are so many unpredictable circumstances over the last couple of years,” he said. “Yeah, it takes its toll on everyone, and I’m sure for her as well, but [for Lowe Rogers] it’s really, ‘what’s the next right thing to do and what’s best for our kids.’”

Kuriyama praised her boss, too.

“She’s been able to handle everything with such grace — it was surprising how well she handled it,” Kuriyama said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.