More than 100 public officials, teachers, staff, volunteers, and other community members gathered June 19 at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility to celebrate an important milestone: the dedication of New Bridge High School.
Funded during the 2015 legislative session as part of Oregon Youth Authority’s 10-Year Plan for Facilities, the $9.8 million, 13,740-square-foot building moves students’ classes out of their living units and into a separate school — with students crossing a new bridge, both literally and figuratively, toward opportunities for changing their lives.
“One of the most important ways we can support our youth is to provide them with a quality education,” OYA director Joe O’Leary told the crowd. “Study after study shows that educational and vocational training programs greatly reduce the likelihood of recidivism. So education for youth at OYA represents a direct link with making our communities safer.”
Attendees at the dedication and open house toured one of New Bridge’s four digitally-connected classrooms, the career center, the manufacturing technology lab, the barber shop, the commons, and the outdoor classroom.
They also viewed Rogue Valley’s new recreation field, which brings the total recreation space at the facility — OYA’s second-largest, with about 100 youth — from just 1.15 acres up to 9.75 acres. Also on view was the new site of the Native American sweat lodge, created by youth with guidance from the Southern Oregon Indian Center, and a mosaic mural focused on diversity and inclusiveness, designed and made by youth working alongside artist Toms Royal and Oh Planning + Design architects.
After a performance by the Rogue Valley youth ukulele band, led by OYA staff member Steven Mounce, several agency and school leaders discussed the school’s importance in supporting youth, improving communities, and furthering OYA’s culture of positive youth development. (Watch a video of the ukulele band.)
But some of the most heartfelt messages came from two students, Damian and Alfonso, who spoke about how the new building — along with the support of their teachers and OYA staff — is helping them change into positive, productive citizens.
“This school changes lives daily,” said Damian, who is part of New Bridge’s Class of 2018 and is the first in his family to graduate high school. “Every day, this school encourages me to step up, and it encourages my peers to keep their head up in class, to keep their mind focused, and to pick up their pencil and do something successful …
“This is what will make a future possible for kids that have only been provided the tools to burn down the bridges of society.” (Read part of Damian’s speech.)
Alfonso said that when he came to the facility at the start of a five-year sentence, he slept through classes and did not care about education. Dedicated teachers, robust vocational programs, and the new building inspired him to become a student leader who now plans to work as a barber in the community when he is released.
“Once I walked up the steps to this new school, my whole perspective changed,” Alfonso said. “I never expected to see or even experience this kind of environment in a place like this. I actually look forward to coming up here when I wake up in the morning, and I enjoy the learning environment provided here …
“It may seem like just a school to others, but to us it’s an opportunity to prove to everyone the people we can really be and the opportunity to further our education and growth.” (Read Alfonso’s full speech.)
Research from RAND Corporation shows that incarcerated people who participate in educational and vocational training programs are 43 percent less likely to be arrested for another crime than those who do not. They are also more likely to find jobs when they leave custody.
In addition to high school diploma and GED programs, New Bridge offers a dual-credit college program, manufacturing technology, barbering, and a number of other vocational classes and certificates, including wood manufacturing, CAD/CAM drafting, 3D printing, and workplace social skills. The school — run by Three Rivers School District, under the supervision of the Oregon Department of Education — is staffed by a principal, eight teachers, four support staff, and a graduation coach.
Before the new building opened at the end of April, students attended school in small classrooms in their living units — a distracting environment that did not lead to optimal learning. The new, separate building looks and feels more like a “normal” community school.
“We want [youth] to be successful, so it makes sense that we’d have them learn and practice new skills in a school environment like the one they’ll find in the community,” O’Leary said at the dedication.
Additionally, the physical features of the building — including large windows with natural lighting and views of nature, carpeted floors, and calming paint colors — support OYA’s use of positive youth development and a therapeutic approach to support rehabilitation. Research shows that therapeutic approaches are more effective at reducing youth reoffending than punitive ones.
“We believe in being good neighbors,” said Ken Jerin, Rogue Valley’s superintendent. “This change will be an opportunity to work with youth in a more normalized community environment, which will enhance our ability to continue teaching and role modeling the importance of being safe, respectful, and responsible.”