But Vernonia also produces extraordinary students. Katy Stevens was a sophomore when the flood destroyed her home. She “lived all over the place” while finishing high school. “We didn’t have a lot of books, no labs. We didn’t have a gym for a while. Oh, god. I would have loved to have had lockers,” she says. “But at the same time, all these challenges just drove me harder toward college. It was inspirational in a way. I saw all these people working hard to make life normal. If everything had been really easy, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
Despite the disadvantages, the 19-year-old Stevens is now on a four-year scholarship at the University of Portland and is majoring in both social work and psychology, turning the flood trauma into triumph. “I want to work with displaced families, orphans, foster kids,” she says. “Homeless people, like I once was.”
The new curriculum and the rural sustainability program are meant to lift overall student achievement, and also benefit college-bound students. “I see our high school kids working with college and professional people,” says Aaron Miller, the principal of Washington and Mist elementary schools and the coordinator of both efforts. “I see us being a leader in natural resources research.”
The rural sustainability program originally was to be housed in a separate building next to the new school, which would include high school science labs and space for research partners, and be a magnet for tourism and green-minded industries.
But in May, P&C Construction said cost increases had pushed the project to $42 million and the $2.8 million stand-alone center was cut. “I’ve been pushing really hard that we deconstruct the Washington grade school and use those materials for a center because it really walks the walk,” says Hyde.
“The new campus and the whole community have become the rural sustainability center,” says an equally undaunted Miller, whose son is a senior at Vernonia High and daughter a recent graduate. “We have miles of linear park, all these rivers and streams, several outdoors schools. Every single part of our natural surroundings can be our classroom.”
The school district so far has partnered with the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council on stream restoration projects and is working with Oregon Fish and Wildlife on fish programs. A Bureau of Land Management nursery in Molalla plans to relocate to the new school, and the district wants to create a native plant nursery and garden.
Some partnership building with universities has started: OSU’s extension service has helped with the natural resources curriculum, and its rural studies program will track the school's impact as part of a Vital Vernonia study. PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions planned to develop classes using Vernonia as a case study, but that has stalled.
“There are some areas where we’ve taken some baby steps, and some giant steps,” says Miller. “University partnerships are baby steps. The No. 1 thing is our K-12 education.”
Two steps forward, one step back. It’s a ratio that can look pretty good to a town like Vernonia.