Courtesy of Burnt River School District
A tiny Eastern Oregon school has an invitation for Portland high school students: Come stay with us for a semester and learn about ag and science.
The program, which will begin next school year with eight Portland girls visiting the first semester and eight Portland boys arriving for second semester, is a deliberate attempt to span the urban-rural divide. And Oregon does not get more rural than the Burnt River School in Unity, Ore., about 50 miles east of John Day.
The Burnt River School District has a single building, a K-12 charter school. In the 2015-16 school year — they’re already out for the summer — the district had 34 students. Fielding an eight-man football team last fall required an allegiance with Prairie City School. Cattle ranching is the primary way to make a living in the area.
District Superintendent Lorrie Andrews also serves as school principal, teaches personal finance and careers, helps seniors with their portfolios and advises the yearbook kids. She’s been there 30 years. “Time for me to go, huh?” she jokes.
She’s been working on Burnt River’s invitation to Portland for a couple of years, with noteworthy help from state Rep. Greg Smith, a Republican from Heppner, state Rep. Cliff Bentz, a Republican from Ontario, and Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett. Now they are ready to try it.
“It is something we’ve thought a lot about,” Andrews said. Burnt River has a “great school and an excellent staff,” she said, but the district’s enrollment has declined for several years. Twenty-eight of the school’s 34 students are high school age.
“We were just thinking we need to think outside the box, so to speak,” Andrews said.
Over the May 21-22 weekend, Portland Public Schools sent an email to its high school families, telling them of the opportunity to take part in the Burnt River Integrated Agriculture/Science Research Ranch program, or BRIARR.
On Monday, May 23, Andrews responded to 23 emails about the program. A bunch more arrived Tuesday.
Portland students will get a semester of hands-on learning in what Burnt River describes as a “variety of natural resource settings.” They’ll learn about animal production science, sustainable rangeland science and forest restoration studies, and do water quality monitoring with the Powder Basin Watershed Council.
She said it made sense to extend the invitation to Portland, by far the state’s largest urban center. The city has more than 49,000 students in 78 schools, including 10 high schools.
“We were thinking there probably are students out there who would enjoy a rural experience and a small school experience at the same time,” Andrews said. “I think it’s a way to bridge that divide. I think there are a lot of misconceptions in both directions. I think we can all learn from one another. Kids are usually open to that.”
Attracting more students helps the district’s budget. The Oregon Department of Education pays school districts a standard per-student amount of $7,100, and that funding will follow the Portland students to Burnt River School. The students will be hosted by local parents, but the details haven’t been finalized.
Andrews said the district is engaged in a number of alternative ways to stay viable. The school became a charter school so it could offer “distance learning,” and attract students outside the district who attend class by Skype, the on-line system. The district also has successfully hosted a number of foreign exchange students over the years, Andrews said.
Burnt River partners with other institutions. Blue Mountain Community College, in Pendleton, put on a short-term welding class for Burnt River kids. Welding, GPS use and small engine maintenance will be offered as mini-courses next year, and Andrews hopes to have a mobile livestock artificial insemination lab visit the school. She’s talking to Treasure Valley Community College about an equine science unit.
Students can take college credit courses, and the district pays for it, she said.
“It’s important,” Andrews said. “It’s a priority for the school board to have students prepared to go on, even though we’re so rural.”
The district will interview applicants in June, looking for students who will be the right fit for Unity, population 75.
“If it’s important to you to spend a lot of time at the shopping mall or the movies, this isn’t the place for you,” Andrews said. “Because that’s not where we are.”
Application forms and a brochure are available on the district’s website: http://burntriver.k12.or.us/home