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.
Sometimes innovative ideas are born outside of boardrooms and laboratories. In the story of Phoenix Charter School of Roseburg, a nontraditional school had a very nontraditional start.
In 1981, UCC GED instructors Tommy Neyhart and Vicki Morgan-Nunenkamp were noting how many kids were failing middle school and high school because they were alternative learners. Typical classroom methods didn’t meet the needs of these bright, but misunderstood, kids, so they dropped out. Tommy and Vicki could identify. They understood dyslexia from the point of having it. Their vision was to develop a school to reach students earlier, to teach in the way they needed to learn, rather than just teaching GED to adults later.
For some reason, the unorthodox pair found themselves having key conversations on the curb at the corner of Riverside and Casey Streets in the Laurelwood neighborhood of Roseburg.
Tommy’s wife at the time was Steph Neyhart. “Tommy was the type of person who would talk to you anywhere, sit on the road, wherever he could sit and chat. They had long conversations about this. They were both very interested and dedicated from the beginning to make this happen.”
Whether it was intentional or a fateful coincidence, Tommy and Vicki were discussing their idea almost literally on the doorstep of another key figure in the early days of Phoenix.
“Every now and then I would look out my window and they would be sitting in the car or on the curb,” says Jaci Pratt, who counts Vicki as one of her dearest friends. “They were looking to build a school that would teach these brilliant kids in the way they needed to be taught.”
Morgan-Nunenkamp remembers those ground-breaking con-fabs well. “Jaci was always someone with whom I could explore ideas and I was two doors down from her and the park was right across the street. It just fit. She would see us and she would come out and sit with us and we would proceed and she would turn out to be the first teacher we hired. We could have just as well gone in the house, but there was some reason why we ended up on the curb continually.”
Tommy’s enthusiasm and vision fit with Vicki’s passion. Morgan-Nunenkamp said the students at UCC motivated them. “We had so many students who came to us and said, ‘If we’d only had teachers like you who really cared about us and what we thought…I might have stayed in school, I wouldn’t have dropped out.’ So I promised myself, if ever I could afford to, I would do a school that specialized just in these kids. Bright, gifted, at-risk kids.”
Steps were taken toward the creation of the “Phoenix Learning Center.” Tommy went to school board meetings, met with district officials, gathered other creative thinkers and championed the cause of a place dedicated to meeting the needs of alternative learners. Morgan-Nunenkamp managed the curriculum and worked with Pratt to rally community support.
Steph remembers Tommy approaching the school district. “He said ‘these kids are dropping out and you are not getting them to graduate. You’re losing them and you’re not getting your daily quota on them because they are dropping out’.”
Jaci added to the case for Phoenix. “I had been on the school board, so they trusted me, too. So we weren’t a threat to the school district. We said we would take struggling kids out of your school and classroom.”
The Phoenix Learning Center became a reality in May of 1981. The school opened with the GED program in the fall of ’81 in the large room inside the First Methodist Church on Harvard Avenue.
Vicki says it was apparent right away that they had struck a chord within the population of students looking for another option. “We had the GED program going and then we started with 1 student and grew to 60 in that first spring for the regular Phoenix School program. It was exhilarating. It was very empowering for us. We knew we were right, we knew we were on the right track.”
Tommy, Vick and Jaci worked for free until the spring of ’82, which was fine with them. It was more about the impact they were having on the students than what was in it for them. That first year was made possible by the Methodist church who didn’t charge the fledgling Phoenix to use their space.
Phoenix Executive Director Ron Breyne was hired to teach at Phoenix in 1982. “We had classes four days a week. We used dividers to create classrooms in the great room and took them down every Thursday.”
Phoenix remained a private school that survived on tuition paid by parents. It stayed that way for the first four years until the passage of Senate Bill 777 which created a mechanism for school districts to contract with alternative providers.
“What Vicki and Tommy created was heroic,” says Breyne. “They were heroes to these kids and to the parents.”
To learn more about Phoenix School, visit www.roseburgphoenix.com, find us on Facebook, or call (541) 673-3036.