Phoenix Charter School of Roseburg began as an idea in the minds of two teachers at Umpqua Community College, seeking support for students with learning disabilities. Now, as the school celebrates 35 years in Roseburg, we reflect on the spark where Phoenix began.
Phoenix was built on the notion that students who struggled with the mainstream learning system were still reachable. Maybe because the three people who helped launched Phoenix school were dyslexic themselves.
Tommy Neyhart, Vicki Morgan-Nunenkamp and Jacie Pratt developed the concept of an alternative school in Roseburg while sitting on a curb in an historic Roseburg neighborhood and then worked to make it a reality.
Neyhart and Morgan-Nunenkamp met when they worked together as GED instructors at Umpqua Community College. They saw the number of intelligent, capable students who were failing at Roseburg High School and went to work to find new ways to reach them.
When Jacie Pratt was invited into the conversations, she realized Tommy and Vicki were dyslexic. While working with them, Jacie came to a revelation of her own. “They must have been the most dyslexic people I had ever known. I would talk to them and they would bounce all over. After a while I realized I was dyslexic too.”
“I am terribly dyslexic,” says Morgan-Nunenkamp. “I mean, I can read upside down or sideways. Doesn’t matter. The challenge is as a child when the teacher gets mad at you because you have the book upside down and you get in trouble for that. That’s a problem. So I had to learn to keep my book right side up and play the game and look like other people but it’s an absolute gift.”
Steph Neyhart was Tommy’s wife at the time. “Tommy taught from his heart and from his knowledge base. And in terms of dyslexia, his gift was that he could take a student that was unsuccessful, whether it was a learning disability, or focusing problems. But he could get them excited about learning.”
Having firsthand experience with the disorder gave the trio a unique way of reaching their students.
“When kids with learning disabilities try to learn something in school, their stomachs drop like they are on a plane,” says Pratt. “That’s why they aren’t in school as much and act out. We needed to find a way to teach them, the same way we needed to learn.”
The Phoenix staff found a way to reach them. It started with a perfectly timed television program that provided another fateful breakthrough for the fledgling school.
Pratt says, “I came home from a tiring day at Phoenix, flopped on the couch and turned on the tv and Ronald Davis was on and he was describing how dyslexia works and feels and I slid off the couch and looked at it and said ‘That’s me’. That’s how my elementary school had gone. I was hiding that from myself. The teacher probably knew I was counting the lines in Dick and Jane to figure out which line I was going to read, so I had time to figure it out.”
Pratt says that moment solidified that they were teaching kids who were bright, but learned in a different way.
“Perfectly intelligent people have this anomaly where their brain works in a certain way. It may work in 3D, but it doesn’t work at all in the two dimensions of reading.”
Later, Ronald Davis would come to Roseburg to teach the Phoenix staff even more about they way their students needed to be taught.
“We learned from Ronald Davis how to set a mental image of an eye that was not going out searching for the way the letters are on the page, but instead the eye never moved. We used colorful pages and filters over pages finding the combination of colors that kept the words from moving.”
Once the Phoenix staff began to implement their new approach to learning disorders, they also began addressing the process of rebuilding the young people they had become responsible for.
Morgan-Nunenkamp said it started with establishing school as a safe place for their students. “School had to be safe, where the children knew they were respected and they were nourished.”
She said it was important for teachers and staff to become ‘enlightened witnesses’ to the students.
“We witnessed for them that they were bright, they were gifted, they were capable, they were good. We validated them, which gave them the courage to take the next step. I mean look at the damage they have had, being teased, being told you were wrong, being told you were bad, whatever. Being forced to conform when it didn’t feel right. So we tried to focus on all the possibilities and help them realize they could move forward.”
Jacie Pratt said the process of making the students feel welcome began immediately. “The first step was to interview them and convince them they were intelligent and had a strong sense of self because they had disrupted every system in place that was telling them this was the way they had to be. Parents, cops, teachers and everyone who tried to conform them.”
“In the first two weeks we cradled them, we tried to emotionally let them rebuild themselves in trust and to delight in all of the things they had lost because they were annoying the people who were knocking them down. The intake ceremony was two weeks later and they were welcomed into the school where they began to have a core that seemed to be something these kids really needed.”