CHILOQUIN — Sahalie Crain stands unsmiling in the middle of the Chiloquin Junior-Senior High School gymnasium holding a handmade sign stating “Won’t Make It.”
Hannah Schroeder is on a bridge in town holding another sign: “Drop Out.” Lani Jackson stands near the railroad tracks. Her sign has one handwritten word: “Trouble.”
The signs held by the Chiloquin Junior-Senior High School students — three of 12 in a video created by the school’s leadership class last spring — represent stereotypes and perceptions of Chiloquin youth. Today, those students are ripping the stereotypes to shreds.
They’re doing it through specific actions, kindness and self-awareness. Character matters. Their fellow students matter. They matter.
Crain graduated and is attending Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. Another graduate, Leo Miller, who held a “Scrub” sign in the video, is attending University of Oregon on a Pathways scholarship. Some of the others are juniors and seniors this year, working to make their school and their community a better place.
More than 120 students crowded into the Chiloquin High School gymnasium just after 8 a.m. on a chilly, cloudy morning last week. All wore matching T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Chiloquin Rising.”
The Give Back Day assembly featured the premiere of the video. Afterward, students and staff would grab gloves and garbage bags and clean up trash throughout town.
As the video started, the gymnasium fell silent.
After acknowledging the stereotypes in the signs held by students, the video shows those same students ripping the signs into pieces. It then asks the seventh- through 12th-graders watching from the bleachers: “Are you ready to rise?”
“So let me tell you what Chiloquin Rising embodies,” said Jordan Osborn, Chiloquin High vice principal and leadership advisor, after the video ended. He had everyone’s attention. “Chiloquin Rising is about working every day to overcome these stereotypes. It’s about holding doors for people. It’s about picking up garbage. It’s about making kindness normal. It’s about being compassionate. It’s about doing community service, and it’s about loving one another on a daily basis. It’s about making a positive difference in everybody’s life every single day.”
It’s important, Osborn said, for students to believe in themselves, and for that he introduced a belief statement developed by the leadership class: “We can. We will. We must.”
“Sometimes when you are doing something new, you need to speak it into existence and you need to tell yourself over and over that we can accomplish these things,” he told the students. “You guys are the future of this community.”
As Osborn dismissed students, he told them, “The people in the community, they’re going to see us, they’re going to see this Chiloquin Rising, and someone might ask you about it so you need to be ready to tell them what Chiloquin Rising means.”
THE REALITY OF PERCEPTION
Osborn and junior high math teacher Jenny Dunham rebooted the school’s student leadership program last spring and have spearheaded positive change ever since, organizing and leading a new school-wide leadership and character development curriculum, Character Strong, as well as the Chiloquin Rising initiative.
“We have a bad perception, I think that’s fair to say,” Osborn said. “The problem is, perception is reality in some cases. Whether that perception is accurate all the time or not, that’s what people believe.”
Chiloquin senior Daniel Jones is the president of student leadership. Den Herrera is vice president and juniors Caitlyn Lawrence and Hannah Schroeder round out the officer team.
Jones and Herrera arrive early each day to hold the school’s doors open and greet their classmates by name. Opening doors and greeting each individual student makes a difference, especially at a school struggling with attendance and graduation rates, Osborn said. It’s too soon to tell whether the new initiatives will change things, but he thinks it’s likely.
Chiloquin Principal Scott Preston agreed. “We’re definitely on the upward swing,” he said. “We’re changing impressions, and in making the school a welcoming environment, we’re going to see improvements in attendance and academics.”
Jones said he is trying to learn everyone’s name, and he goes out of his way to interact and eat lunch with classmates he doesn’t know very well. He’s not the only one.
Herrera, Lawrence, and Schroeder do the same, and they are seeing a difference.
“Everyone’s a lot happier. They smile in the hallway,” Lawrence said. “There has been a lot of anger in the school over the past few years and I see none of that. There’s just so much more support with Chiloquin Rising. It’s crazy.”
Chiloquin Rising, they say, isn’t just about what happens within the walls of their school. Every other week, Chiloquin students volunteer at the local food pantry. On Wednesdays, leadership students help at the elementary school. They are always looking for ways to help out, to be thankful, to give back.
Herrera and Jones are both on the football team. When they travel to games, the perception others have of Chiloquin follows them.
“I mean you can go to other schools and there’s always a stereotype of us because we’re from Chiloquin, and everyone looks down on us,” Jones said. “We want to show them that’s not the case, that we’re one of the better schools in the area when it comes to community and caring about each other.”
Dunham, who lives just north of Chiloquin with her husband, Rob, a longtime shop teacher at Chiloquin High, said she would like to those stereotypes change.
“The students do feel marginalized by the stereotypes, and that’s one of things that is hardest to overcome,” she said. “We do have a lot of people who are dedicated to improving the community, and they want to support the kids.”
That Chiloquin has challenges is no secret. The community of about 700 nestled on the banks of the Williamson River north of Klamath Falls struggles with unemployment, poverty and racial tensions. When tragedy happens, it impacts everyone.
The school’s Chiloquin Rising initiative is part of a community-wide effort to improve the lives of its citizens. Two other groups — Chiloquin First and Chiloquin Visions in Progress — are working on tourism and business development. There’s a community garden. One sign reminds people that buying alcohol for minors is illegal — and harmful to youth. “Think twice,” it states. “Underage drinking can be dangerous … Be the influence they need.”
“There’s a lot of energy currently from the community and we’re a part of that obviously,” Osborn said. “Our spin on that is Chiloquin Rising.”
Using funds from a Tribal Attendance Pilot Project grant, which provides $150,000 over two years to the elementary and high schools to improve student attendance, the school purchased the Character Strong curriculum for the junior high and high school.
School staff was trained this fall, and on Friday, more than 100 people attended a free, day-long, community-wide Character Strong training for adults hosted by Chiloquin Junior-Senior High and Chiloquin Elementary schools.
The curriculum has been integrated into advisory classes for all students at the junior high and high school. It emphasizes four stages of character development.
Students start at the first stage — “I don’t know about it so I’m probably not good at it” — and progress, aiming for the fourth and most advanced stage of development — “I have practiced it so much that I don’t even have to think about it, it’s just who I am.” The key, the program maintains, is that good character can be practiced and learned.
“I tell all the kids this: Character is not a talent, it’s a skill,” Osborn said. “We want to improve your character. We don’t want to mess with your personality — your personality is you, that’s what makes you unique. Character is who you are based on a thousand choices you make on a daily basis.”
Dunham is the advisor for the seventh- and eighth-grade leadership class. She sees a difference in her students since the school implemented the Character Strong program last spring.
“I have watched students in my own classroom respond positively to the change in atmosphere we are trying to create,” she said. “They are beginning to show more pride in themselves and their work. I can’t help but think this is going to result in Chiloquin High School seeing better numbers on test scores, attendance and graduation rates over time.”
“Here’s the question I want you to ask at the end of the day, before you go to sleep at night,” Osborn told students at the Chiloquin Rising assembly. “What have I done for others today? … If you can answer that question with something positive, and we each do it on a daily basis, you will be amazed at how fast we can change some of these stereotypes.”
As students and staff members gathered in groups to clean up streets, alleyways and empty lots around town, those words seemed to follow them.
“We need to do more for our community every day, not just specific days, but every single day,” said senior Aleah Bimemiller as she scoured the side of the road for litter.
Chiloquin senior Presley Frost leaned over and picked up an empty plastic bottle, putting in the black trash bag her classmate Ashia Wilson held open.
“I think it’s great,” she said of school’s Chiloquin Rising initiative. “I like being a part of leadership and being able to show the elementary kids that Chiloquin’s not a bad place. And we’re improving it for them.”
Wilson added: “I think it’s awesome our school’s getting involved in this.”
HALLWAYS OF INSPIRATION
Windows at either end of the hallway let in sunlight. Blue vertical lockers line the walls. On them are notes, messages from junior Caitlyn Lawrence and her brother, Robert.
“Be stronger. Be kinder. Be unstoppable. Be fierce,” states one. “You are your own limit,” says another. One note states simply: “Keep going!”
In one of the main hallways is the “Staff Spotlight” board. This week, school office secretary Terri Hanno is the chosen one. Yellow sticky notes and other scribbled notes are taped to the white poster board with her photo and biography. “Thank you for all the positivity you bring,” says one. ”You are amazing,” says another.
Each week, a new staff member is in the spotlight, including cooks, custodians, educators, administrators, and secretaries.
A wall in Osborn’s office is covered with photos of students. Some are group photos of his lunch gatherings — once every two weeks Osborn chooses a student and they get to choose a few more to join them — to order lunch with him from JJ’s Café. He also provides incentives for students who are struggling with attendance, grades or behavior issues.
Osborn and Dunham are excited about the changes they are seeing. It’s too early for hard data but the day-to-day atmosphere has shifted.
“I am seeing students being kinder to each other and helping each other out,” Dunham said. “There will always be conflict and drama, but I feel like there is less of it this year. I personally have seen very little behavior problems within my own classroom.”
It’s Monday and the last period of the day at Chiloquin Junior-Senior High School.
Osborn’s leadership students file into class. For them, it’s motivation day, and Osborn starts the period with a seven-minute video, which leads to a discussion about self-motivation. The video, which used the analogy of a gazelle running every day so it doesn’t get eaten by a hungry lion, dares the students to keep going, even if they aren’t being pushed.
“When does the gazelle stop running?” Osborn asked. “When the lion stops chasing it.” The students are encouraged to think about how that relates to their lives: Do they stop working or trying when someone stops pushing them. Or are they self-motivated?
Students are then challenged with a character dare for the week; “Listen for a parent, a sibling, or a classmate to complain about something they have to do and offer to do it for or with them.”
Osborn announced that members of the football team are traveling to Klamath Falls at 4 p.m. Friday, and the leadership students are encouraged to join them. The group will eat pizza and then attend a play-off football game between the Mazama Vikings and Woodburn Bulldogs. Afterwards, the team will clean the bleachers as a way to thank Mazama High School and its staff for hosting Chiloquin’s games at their stadium this year.
These 15 leadership students are leading the way, practicing selflessness, kindness and character. The 16 members of Dunham’s junior high leadership class are doing the same.
The junior high leadership class this fall decided to elect officers and its members are seeking opportunities to make a difference, setting a standard for future leadership classes. The students led the Crunch-At-Once event at the elementary school, and earlier helped create a video with OSU Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center promoting the event and Farm-to-School programs. OSU Extension has asked them to make a second video about potatoes.
Leading isn’t always easy, Osborn said, but he believes the narrative in Chiloquin is starting to shift.
“What I want the conversation to be is ‘Those kids in Chiloquin, they’re kind, they’re good-hearted people. And man, they’ve got perseverance, they’ve got grit,” Osborn said. “I want that to be the conversation, not what they might see in the newspaper about what can happen out here every once in a while.”
At 3 p.m., leadership students get ready to end their day — and the day of their classmates — the same way they do every day. They open the doors at the school’s main entrance and hold them open, creating a tunnel of sorts for students to pass through. As students leave, they slap the extended hands of their classmates and accept high-5s. Some are in a hurry; others smile and interact. Within five minutes or so, the day is done. The doors are closed.
“All right,” Osborn says. “See you all tomorrow.”