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Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making it green


RIGHT: Dan and Heidi Brown own the Grey Dawn Gallery in downtown Vernonia. Dan is also the flood recovery manager and chair of the planning commission and Heidi is the schools' nurse. 
BELOW: Brad Curtis owns Photo Solutions. He's unsure he can continue to do business in Vernonia.
// Photos by Justin Tunis

On a basic economic level, the school district means jobs; with about 85 employees, it’s the town’s largest employer. And a better school would attract more families and students. But beyond that, how to position the schools to be a bigger boost to the economy?

“The question was always, ‘What’s the economic future of the town?”’ says Alissa Keny-Guyer, Oregon Solutions’ program manager.

To answer that, in its 2010 strategic plan the city looked 20 years into the future and imagined that the new LEED platinum K-12 school had been a catalyst for the town’s improvement. It was now the “Bicycle Center of Oregon,” where Stub Stewart state park was connected to a thriving downtown frequented by residents and tourists, drawn by its parks and outdoor recreation. It was a town where the idea of being a “living laboratory for the natural resource economy” had become a reality and produced real, local jobs, a town where new light industry finally gained a foothold.

Two of the central ideas on how to connect the new school to a new green economy are a natural resources curriculum integrated into all subject areas for K-12 students — many of whom come from logging families — and the Vernonia Rural Sustainability Center, a set of programs — a strategy — that aims among other activities to incubate green entrepreneurs and new natural resource businesses, provide workforce training and apprenticeships for students and the community, and build relationships with research institutions.

“It’s an interesting idea with a lot of potential,” says Bruce Weber, director of Oregon State University’s rural studies program. Vernonia is in the right location for this, and “they have some visionary people. Urban people are interested in sustainability and going to Vernonia is not a big trip. If urban institutions could set up learning opportunities there, I think it could work.”

The green curriculum has been supported by $25,000 from Oregon Fish and Wildlife for salmon projects and training, donations from Big Horn Logging and Longview Timber, $10,000 from the Department of Education for teacher training, and help from the Oregon Natural Resources Educational Program. Such a curriculum is meant to prepare Vernonia students for “jobs of the future” in areas such as forestry, natural resource research and engineering design.

Vernonia schools struggle; scores for reading, math and writing generally have been below the state average. It is also a district where 40% of the students live at or below the poverty level. Along with this, a bruising economy has cut state school dollars, eliminating teachers and programs: The elementary school no longer has music; kindergarten has been cut to halftime; the middle school lost its principal and counselor, the high school its full-time athletic director.


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