'We want them back with us' – Phoenix-Talent schools hope to keep displaced families – Yahoo News

Sep. 4—As Marcelo Camargo drove away from his Phoenix apartment on Sept. 8, 2020, to evacuate from the oncoming Almeda Fire, the Phoenix High School student thought the blaze would pass over the complex and leave it intact so his family could come back and get more of their belongings.
He was wrong.
Camargo's home was one of nearly 2,500 devoured by the blaze, and his family was counted among the 4,200 people displaced by the disaster, including 700 students in the Phoenix-Talent School District.
Camargo, a high school senior who lives in Medford, admits he thought about transferring out of Phoenix-Talent schools because of the commute between cities, and he wasn't sure whether the district would provide transportation to students in his situation.
But Camargo, who is on the PHS cross-country team, ultimately decided to stick with Phoenix-Talent schools.
"I kind of made Phoenix High School my home, you know," Camargo said this week as the fire's two-year anniversary approached. "The people there, I wouldn't just be able to replace them. They've been there for me when I needed them."
While Camargo seems to have emerged from the post-fire journey on solid footing, Phoenix-Talent school district officials say it's not over yet for many people, and families are "still hurting."
Government efforts to help a community rebuild can take a decade or more, according to Phoenix-Talent schools Superintendent Brent Barry, and many of his district's families are still in temporary housing. He understands their frustrations.
"We've had families that (say), 'I'm done with our situation; I need to see some more hope,'" Barry said. "It continues to put a pulse on (the situation)."
One of the worst impacts the Almeda Fire had on Phoenix-Talent schools was that many who were displaced didn't live in the district's boundaries anymore, forcing hours-long commutes for some. Other students chose to move on from Phoenix-Talent schools altogether.
With the new school year starting Sept. 6 and 7, district administrators are curious what the 2022-23 registration numbers will be.
"Families kind of hung with us, for the most part, last year. They were willing to be on that bus for a long time," Barry said. "As time goes on, when there's not as many options in the foreseeable future, I think families have to make a tough choice: 'Do I want to go to the resident school?'"
On Friday, the district received some positive news when it comes to answering that question. Early registration numbers show 2,214 students have registered for the 2022-23 school year; that's 71 more students compared to this time last year.
Joe Zavala, district communications specialist, cautioned the current registration figure for 2022-23 is not final. The apparent increase might reflect the district's "increased efforts" to register students, not the fact that so many Almeda Fire-impacted families chose to stay with the district. Whatever the case, school officials will know more in several weeks.
Tiffany Lambert, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the district, expressed hope that many families displaced by the Almeda Fire would re-register with Phoenix-Talent schools this coming school year.
"We want them back with us — I know they want to come back with us — but some of the bus rides were really long," she said. "We had kids being picked up before 6 a.m. Especially for the younger kids, that can be a little tough."
Phoenix High School student Aaron Chavez knows what it's like to endure those long bus rides. He now lives in Central Point. But the three-hour total commute didn't stop him from re-registering with the district.
"They're such a heart-warming community, and I would love to stay a part of it," wrote Chavez, who produced a short film on the Almeda Fire for Southern Oregon PBS earlier this year.
Transporting Phoenix-Talent students who live outside the district is again a priority for administrators — though by law they're only able to drive those who qualify as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Although the number of students in need of transportation has gone down significantly since 2020, about 100 students still need it, according to Barry. But, Lambert added, district officials won't know how many students they need to pick up from outside the district until registration is complete.
Since grant funding for such efforts dried up, district officials will use money from the general fund, filled in part by House Bill 4026, to help. Passed during the 2022 short legislative session, HB 4026 helps to backfill funding several school districts lost as a result of students moving after the 2020 fires. Per state law, school district funding is determined in part by the number of students who attend.
"We will have to provide that (transportation) support, which we're committed to, but that will be out of a general fund, which is even more of a reason why it's nice to have some secure funding, because we will have increased transportation costs," Barry said.
This coming school year Phoenix-Talent School District will also focus more on mental health and "whole family support," according to the superintendent. That is why the district has named three community care specialists: Laura Millette, Katie McCormick and Rosario Medina. All three women will be led by Kelly Soter, director of equity and community care.
The specialists will work with students and families to connect them not only to district resources, such as technology and school supplies, but community resources that provide food and housing services.
"Our community care specialists (say), 'how can we help support a student and a family in their home, in transportation, in their medical needs; in any instability, whether it's food or housing,'" Soter said. "Anything we can do to help and support and stabilize a family has a lasting impact on a student's ability to be successful in their school and academics."
Soter noted that the week before the official start of school, her team focused on establishing their operations, so there hasn't been a lot of time to hear from families, particularly those impacted by the Almeda Fire.
"Certainly, a fire survivor family will be at the top of our list to make a connection, if our community care specialist doesn't already have one, and find out what their unmet needs are," Soter said. "Those folks have been navigating a really difficult process and continue to have unmet needs, and that will be our very first question: 'What are your unmet needs.'"
Heather Lowe Rogers, principal of Talent Elementary School, is thankful for the community care team and for Medina, who will be stationed at the school.
Medina, a former teacher and Talent resident, will focus on students' mental health and wellness.
"Rosario is embedded in the community, and she's going to be helping support our families and, of course, fire survivors are definitely a top priority for us," Lowe Rogers said. "There is a lot of trauma that we're still working through."
Eighty-five Talent Elementary students lost homes to the fire. Nine of them transferred to schools within the district and 15 transferred out. This coming school year, she hopes to retain 50 students who were with her in late summer of 2020, right after the Almeda Fire.
Lowe Rogers called it "a heartbreak" that some of her students' families can't find more affordable housing. They might find it eventually, but it might be when those students are no longer enrolled in elementary school.
When it comes to the impact of the Almeda Fire on the community and Barry's district, he said he spent a lot of time reflecting this summer. The district's response to the pandemic — and just helping families impacted by the blaze — hadn't allowed time to step back and look at the tragedy from a new perspective.
"Not that it's slowing down, but for some reason, this summer, there have been more conversations about reflecting on what we've been through and how we can support students and families," Barry said. "You realize that this is gigantic stuff, which gets you a little emotional. It's kind of healing at the same time."
Going forward, Barry — named Oregon's Superintendent of the Year for 2021 — is also realistic about recovery. When he speaks at conferences throughout the state, he must remind his audiences of the devastation the Almeda Fire brought to his district and community.
"People see rebuilding and they go, 'Oh, gosh, you guys are almost there,'" Barry said. "No, we're not almost there. They won't close out Almeda state and federal relief for another 15 more years. That's the actual timeline of what this recovery and response looks like."
In his most recent "welcome back" message to Phoenix-Talent School District students, Barry invoked a passage from "Kafka on the Shore," by writer Haruki Murakami.
It reads: "And once the storm is over, you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won't be the same person who walked in."
Lambert feels that passage is fitting for her district in recovering from the Almeda Fire.
"We don't know when the storm is over, but we won't be the same district," she said.
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.
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