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A Class Of Their Own: Attending School In Oregon's Least Populated County


The 2019 graduating class at Wheeler High School was three students. But the small classes make school feel more intimate than lonely.

Katie Jaeger was one of just three 2019 Wheeler High School graduates in Wheeler County, the least populated county in Oregon.

Jaeger has lived in the small town of Fossil since sixth grade and will soon attend Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton. She said living in Fossil has its challenges, like slim shopping pickings, but the small classroom experience can actually be more intimate than lonely.

Jaeger’s English teacher Molly Carter agreed.

“It was hard to wrap my head around,” Carter said. “It was more like having a conversation than anything else, except that one party doesn’t know what you’re trying to talk about.”

More from Wheeler County: Mitchell’s Mayor Is Also The Barber, Pastor And Bus Driver

Carter, who teaches grades seven through 12 in Fossil, had Jaeger in class for three years. At times, like when Jaeger was a sophomore, Jaeger was Carter’s only student at her grade level.

Because Wheeler also has the oldest average age population of any Oregon county, both Jaeger and Carter said establishing a social life could be tough.

Before coming to Fossil, Jaeger lived in Dallas and Bend, and attended a 500-student grade school. Jaeger said she used to be shy and was surprised by how outgoing her classmates were.

“I’ve come out of my shell,” Jaeger said.

Katie Jaeger poses for a portrait outside Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Wheeler County is the least populated county in Oregon, which makes for an intimate schooling experience for students like Jaeger.

Katie Jaeger poses for a portrait outside Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Wheeler County is the least populated county in Oregon, which makes for an intimate schooling experience for students like Jaeger.

Samantha Matsumoto/OPB

In such a small town, personal connections can be rare. You can’t simply drop a friend over an argument in Fossil, Jaeger said.

“You have to be more open-minded,” Jaeger said. “You have to be more patient, especially with other people.”

For Jaeger, those connections extend to teachers like Carter. Jaeger said she considers her teachers to be more like “mentors,” and believes the small — sometimes one-on-one — class sizes give extra support.

After attending BMCC, Jaeger said she plans to join the Peace Corps, and then she might consider coming back to Wheeler County or to another Rogue Valley community to teach.

“I’d like to have one-on-one time with kids like I’ve experienced,” she said.

Staff members sit on the bleachers in the gym at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

Staff members sit on the bleachers in the gym at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

Samantha Matsumoto/OPB

Carter, who attended the University of Portland and previously lived in the city, said she took the Fossil job to try out rural teaching. Carter’s family is from a rural community, and she had grown weary of gentrification in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood.

So far, Carter’s largest class was a nine-student combined group of seventh and eighth graders. She has struggled to find teaching resources appropriate for such small groups, as most things are aimed at larger classes with up to 40 students.

“It definitely would have been better to have more students,” Carter said.

Teacher Molly Carter poses for a portrait in her classroom at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Carter taught student Katie Jaeger for three years; sometimes Jaeger was the only student at her grade level.

Teacher Molly Carter poses for a portrait in her classroom at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Ore., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Carter taught student Katie Jaeger for three years; sometimes Jaeger was the only student at her grade level.

Samantha Matsumoto/OPB

Carter has made do and said her students have opened her eyes to rural culture and lifestyle.

Recently, they had a discussion about the Second Amendment. Carter’s students explained to her that guns were sometimes historical family heirlooms, and that many rural communities need guns to hunt.

More from Wheeler County: Oregon Company Town Lives On In Man’s Memories And Model Trucks

“It was really good to have that moment with those students,” Carter said. “To be like, OK, I hear you and you’re changing my mind.”

In turn, Carter said she takes students on field trips through bigger cities like Portland. Students ask her questions about what life is like there.

“I try and … put it in a more positive light in case they want to go that way,” Carter said, “because there’s plenty a city has to offer, just like there’s plenty Fossil has to offer.”

Hear more from the Wheeler High School Class of 2019 in the audio player at the top of the page.

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