National News
March 9, 2010

Roseburg charter school rises to top in state

Crouched over a row of fava beans in Phoenix Charter School's Learning Garden, Justin Mehling plucked and squashed hungry cucumber beetles during class on Monday.

Until recently, the Canyonville freshman, who should have been a sophomore this year, struggled with his school work.

Dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder worked against him, making reading and writing nearly impossible for the young man. 

About a year ago, Mehling began commuting to the Phoenix Charter School in Roseburg, where he was able to work in the sustainable agriculture program as well as get back on track for graduation with his general education studies.

“I've just been loving it ever since,” he said, explaining the attention teachers devote to helping him understand material and overcome his learning disabilities was just what he needed. “They take it slow with me here.”

Mehling's story is one of many at the Roseburg alternative school, which serves seventh- through 12th-graders and was recognized last week for its ability to help kids who have struggled elsewhere succeed.

The Clackamas-based Northwest Center for Educational Options named Phoenix its Charter School of the Year, chosen from the 100 secondary-level charter schools in Oregon.

Phoenix Executive Director Ron Breyne said he thinks the group, which champions school options such as charter schools, chose his school due to successes such as its 95 percent graduation rate and “satisfactory” Adequate Yearly Progress rating last year.

“To do that with an at-risk population is a remarkable development,” he said.

Phoenix Principal Jerry Runnels likes the recognition his teachers are getting.

“I'm glad that they realize what we're trying to do — we're trying to engage the students,” he said. “It's not the same old, same old.”

Students agree.

“This school is better than the last three schools I went to,” senior Dylan Jolley of Winchester said. “Plus I get to do Corps and make money.”

Oregon Youth Conservation Corps is one of Phoenix's several career and technical education programs, putting students into a working environment where they learn skills while earning credits toward graduation. They can also earn minimum wages through Title II and III funding, and sometimes college credit and college scholarships.

Breyne said the school is still working to develop its identity as a charter school, much of which involves community-based, on-the-job experiences.

There is also a push to connect what students do outside of school to what they're learning in the general education classrooms.

“We want to integrate the pieces of education so it makes sense,” he said. “Most of the time, classrooms are their own entity and you go from planet to planet.”

Charter Board Chairman Gary Gray, a bank manager in Roseburg, got involved with the school several years ago and said Phoenix's ability to engage students is impressive.

“They allow each student to find their passion in life and connect in with that and then the education comes from that,” he said. “They get a chance to find what gets them excited and I think that makes such a big difference in their lives.”

Phoenix opened its doors as an alternative school in 1981, changing to a charter school five years ago.

It has about 200 students and has a waiting list for Roseburg-area students, but has openings for students from other areas of the county.

Runnels said between Monday and today, the school expected to enroll 12 new students.

Garrett Nielsen, a 10th-grader from Roseburg, was just finishing up his first day and felt pretty positive about what he found at Phoenix.

“They actually hired me to help tarp the greenhouse,” he said. “I like it a lot, especially for my first day.”

Teachers and staff are enjoying recognition for their hard work, but many said there's still more work to be done.

English teacher Kathy Harris said while students' reading scores on state tests did go up last year, now she and her colleagues are redirecting attention to get more students passing.

“Our focus now is on those nearly meeting (standards) students and trying to get those nearly meets to where they're meeting,” she said.

• You can reach reporter DD Bixby at 957-4211 or by e-mail at

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