Think Out Loud

A year after fire, superintendent reflects on return to school

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Sept. 3, 2021 10:13 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 8

The Almeda Fire roared through Phoenix and Talent last September. Now, students are beginning a new school year. We hear from Brent Barry, the superintendent of Phoenix-Talent Schools, about what he expects as classes begin.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Today is the first day of school for students in the Phoenix-Talent School District. It is also the one year anniversary of the Alameda Fire which destroyed entire neighborhoods in the area. Meanwhile, the region is still dealing with a massive surge in Covid-19 cases. All of this in one way or another falls on the shoulders of Brent Barry. He is the Superintendent of the District. He was recently named Oregon Superintendent of the Year. Brent Barry, congratulations and welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Brent Barry: Thanks Dave, Good to be with you today.

Miller: How is the day gone for you so far?

Barry: Well, it’s been amazing. It’s obviously bittersweet. I actually can’t think of a better day to start and have a first day of school than on the one year anniversary. I know it’s such a traumatic event in our community and we still have families that are really reeling from the devastation and as you heard earlier in the show, trying to find affordable housing. But with that, when we have kids being dropped off and walking through our buildings, even with masks on, you could just see the beam in their eyes and the staffs’ eyes and the parents’ eyes, I had a chance to be in buildings today and it was just energizing - a lot of hope and encouragement. and just really excited for this day to be here.

Miller: About 30% of the families in your district had their homes destroyed. Aout 700 students lost their homes. Where are those families today?

Barry: They’re really scattered around the Rogue Valley, some have had to move to where they have other resources around the state, some in other parts of the country. We’re committed to making sure those kids get to and from school if they’re in our valley. As a matter of fact, you may know, we do have a national crisis and bus driver shortage and we’re feeling the same effects in our area. So we have vans going out. I had an opportunity today to jump in a van and go pick up kids and bring them to their first day of school. That’s where the fun is, being with kids and connecting with kids. But we’re committed to making sure that the constant in their life, as far as education goes and their peers and their activities and the teachers that they love are constant and the other stuff will work itself out in the end, but we want to make sure that’s a positive aspect of their life right now.

Miller: As we were talking about earlier with Brian Clem, to a great extent, people whose homes burned up, especially in Jackson County, were low income, many lived in mobile home parks and there were huge questions a year ago about whether or not that kind of affordable housing would come back. Based on what you’ve seen and really with the families in your District, are they coming back?

Barry: Yeah, so we’re a year in, and as Representative Clem shared, we’re a year in and we’ve made some remarkable progress. We have a long way to go. We still have families in hotels, we still have families doubled up and tripled up around our valley, but there is hope. Our towns of Talent and Phoenix and the county are really working hard to ensure that there is a spot for our families to come home to. Now, with that said, for it to be kind of a replication on the value and the rent, monthly rent is going to be a challenge, but we’re really hoping that we have some affordable housing options, Housing Authority is really getting involved as well, so we’re hopeful there’ll be opportunities for families to return, and we have heard time and time again, that that’s their desire, they want to be in our school district, they want to make sure that they can remain with their friends, so there’s other great projects going on, Gateway Project in Talent that really is modeled for those that are most vulnerable and those that didn’t have any other resources to rebuild.

Miller: Eleven of your staff members also lost their homes in the fire. How are they doing?

Barry: They’re in recovery and rebuilding mode and they have a lot of support from this community and they’re doing okay. They’re ready to serve and continue to support the kids and families. We have a new position that is a Student and Family Engagement Specialist that is really focused on our families that are still still experiencing homelessness and she lost her home in the fire, too. So she understands first hand what our families are going through. And so that’s something that is a strong connection and, and really definitely can share the compassion for what families are going through.

Miller: I was really struck by a school supply list letter, the Talent Middle School Principal Kent Vallier, I hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly, sent out a few weeks ago. It was unusual because instead of talking about physical supplies, like notebooks that parents should buy for their sixth graders, it was instead focused on, basically, on social and emotional needs of kids. He wrote things like ensure your child spends time with loved ones, establish a predictable routine, ensure 8 to 10 hours of sleep on school nights, read a book together, and it seems like this letter touched a chord. Why do you think that is?

Barry: I think there’s just so many stressors going on and I’ll tell you what, that’s a lesson for all of us, not just kids and parents in any district, I don’t care how old you are, what just are some simple things that you can do. And I think it struck a chord because, first of all, it alleviated stress from families to really look for supplies and purchase supplies for their kids. It also struck a chord because that’s what our job is. We need to make sure our kids feel safe and a sense of belonging and feel cared for in order to get the most out of them academically and that’s first and foremost what we set out to do. And I think that just really communicated that in a clear manner to our Talent Middle School Bulldog families and our district as a whole.

Miller: In recent days, I’ve been looking at the air quality map for the state and your section of the state has most days has had some of the worst air quality of everywhere in Oregon - it is a little bit better today, it seems than yesterday or the day before, but it’s still essentially unhealthy air, how is even that affecting the community’s mental health?


Barry: It is a challenge and it seems to be something that is continuous, really, in July and August in our area and it’s just, we just need to continue to make sure we support and find ways to get our families and kids connected. You look out the window, I’m looking out the window right now and most days I can’t see the hill that’s just not too far away. It can be depressing. It can be, gosh, is this ever gonna end? But it will. We keep taking one step forward and you mentioned earlier we not only have the devastation of the Alameda Fire and the air quality and we’re one of the highest rates in the nation as far as Covid cases as well, so continue to navigate through that challenge.

Miller: Right, this is essentially like you have been dealing with- and you’re not alone in this, but it’s worse in some ways for you than many other places of just, essentially constant emergencies that are never ending. How are you dealing with that, personally all at once, all the time?

Barry: Somebody asked me about the other day and we’ve been at hyper speed for so long. You really haven’t had time to reflect and debrief and things of that nature, though we take a minute to breathe and make sure we’re looking for the next place to serve, but what’s keeping me going is the team we have here in the Phoenix-Talent Schools. I mean it is absolutely remarkable what staff did in the minutes and hours after the Alameda Fire and continue to do today. I mean it’s just simply an amazing accomplishment. And we know that that work is not going to be done after the year, or after two years or after three years. It’s gonna be a multi year, decades long of support that we’ll need to provide our kids and families and it’s a heavy burden, but when you look around, there’s so many stinking good things going on that you just can’t help but smile.

Miller: I’m talking right now to Brent Barry, the Superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District. Today is the first day of classes there. You were named, as I mentioned at the top, Oregon Superintendent of the Year for your work over the last year. What does that mean to you?

Barry: Definitely feel honored and humbled and as you described, we’ve been going through a lot over the last year and I shared, a week ago when this award was surprisingly shared with our district in the middle of one of my welcome back speeches, which was amazing. My family was there. I felt really grateful and honored, but really, it’s a district, it’s what our district has done over the last year. And yeah, I’m Superintendent. I’m the leader of this district, and put some things in place, but we have, like I said, amazing people. As I continue to think about what this means, I’m just happy that we’ll have a platform to continue to showcase all the great things going on in our school district.

Miller: You are a Superintendent when life has gotten really hard in many ways for Superintendents. In Oregon, two Superintendents have been fired recently and this has become a kind of national phenomenon. One of the big lightning rods, not the only one, but one of the big ones has been parents and also school boards who are unhappy with school administrators who are following in Oregon, the Governor’s mask mandates. What has it been like for you to see fellow school leaders let go over that?

Barry: It’s really heartbreaking. When you see colleagues in that situation, it’s just heartbreaking and I know things are super tough. There’re a lot of different viewpoints and feelings and thoughts on how to best move forward through this pandemic. When it comes down to it, on these mandates and requirements, you see our kids, all 2,300 of them walking into our school buildings today; that’s why we need to make sure we preserve that because that’s just super important. And I’m thankful for a very supportive board and we have a community that’s divided and apprehensive about some of the mandates and requirements that we’re following through on with the State of Oregon’s rules. I’ve been in this District 18 years, so I have some connections with families  and we can agree to disagree, but hopefully, it’s professional and respectful and everybody knows that we have the same goal in mind and that’s to make sure that we help, guide, support and educate our kids.

Miller: The flip side of that animosity is, that you noted this earlier, that individuals and businesses have really stepped forward to help out. Can you give us a sense for the scale of support you’ve seen from the community?

Barry: It’s phenomenal and we talk about really, from day one on what we, what this community in Southern Oregon in the Rogue Valley really rallied around each other to  make sure that this is gonna be recovery and rebuilding at one of the fastest levels that you’ve seen. There’re things that get in the way, and Representative Clem kind of mentioned some of it, these Land Use laws and permitting and things of that nature. But there’s a lot of people working together and a lot of people coming together to provide resources for families and community to make sure that we rebuild in a manner in which we, similar to what we looked in the past, but even better than before. I will share yesterday that we dedicated a Manzanita sculpture to the Greenway, that our summer school classes did, and it was just a reminder of resilience, these Manzanita branches that were sculpted by kids and interpretive writing that was created by kids. So it was just an amazing time to reflect.

Miller:You told us a year ago, and you echoed earlier in this conversation today, that we’re not talking about a year or two. We’re talking about a decade or more in terms of the effect that this has had and will have on families and the time it will take to actually rebuild. We have about a minute left.  I’m just curious what that means, practically speaking, in terms of the district’s responsibilities?

Barry: I think every year on this anniversary will bring up emotions as far as district responsibilities are all, all schools are really reeling from this two year pandemic that’s been happening. But as far as our responsibilities, we need to make sure we continue to find ways that if you are not residing in our area, that you still are connected with your friends and families. There are families that are choosing to go to school where they reside now and that’s just fine. But if you want an opportunity to stay in the Phoenix-Talent Schools that we’re going to make that happen and it’s been working so far.

Miller: Brent Barry, thanks very much for your time. Once again, I appreciate it. Congratulations on the start of the school year and your Superintendent of the Year Award.

Barry: Thanks so much, appreciate it, Dave.

Miller: Brent Barry is Superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District.

Here’s a quick follow up to yesterday’s interview with Ernie Warren, he is the longtime Defense Attorney who recently became the head of the new Justice Integrity Unit in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. He talked about the fact that non-unanimous jury decisions have been found unconstitutional.  That came in the Ramos v. Louisiana U. S. Supreme Court decision from a couple years ago. Warren gave the impression that the decision was retroactive, meaning that all prior, non-unanimous convictions would have to be reconsidered. That is not the case. We reached out to Ernie Warren to give him a chance to correct the record. He sent us this note: ‘I spoke in error, implying that the Ramos Decision is retroactive, as it is indeed not.’ ‘However,’ he wrote, ‘the state is in ongoing conversation regarding this matter. While the Multnomah County District Attorney is not a party to such conversations, I believe that retroactivity would be a step in the right direction to bring justice to individuals convicted by non-unanimous juries.’

Coming up tomorrow. The new People for Portland Advocacy Group was co-founded by two political consultants who are often on opposite sides of issues. They’ve come together to demand bold action from elected leaders to house people living outside, to clean up streets and to increase funding for police. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts.

Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow. Mhm Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.

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