Kindergarten teacher Jyll Abrams surveys her Westside School classroom as she prepares to make the move to the rebuilt Jackson Elementary School. Jackson students and staff have been at the school in west Medford for 2½ years while their school was being rebuilt. - Bob Pennell

Teachers, students move home

On Thursday, 21/2 years after Jackson and Roosevelt elementary students and staff were squeezed into any available space elsewhere in the Medford School District, staff members packed up their classrooms in preparation for a pair of homecomings.

Students and staff who have shared space at the former West Side School, Hoover Elementary and Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools will return to Jackson and Roosevelt on Jan. 5-6.

About $25 million of the Medford School District's $189 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2006 have gone toward rebuilding and renovating the two circa-1911 schools. The two campuses were abruptly closed in June 2007 due to structural problems.

At the West Side School Thursday, kindergarten teacher Jyll Abrams looked around her classroom, overwhelmed by the volume of toys, blocks, books and other instructional materials around her. Kate Hassen, a veteran teacher and Jackson's instructional coach, was relieved that a volunteer and three support staff members had come to her rescue and were helping her organize and pack.

"I am grateful to all my helpers," Abrams said. "Otherwise, I'd be here forever."

As they peeled lilac-colored paper off the walls and filled up boxes, they talked about their excitement about returning to the Jackson campus and reuniting with Jackson students and teachers who were assigned to McLoughlin Middle School during the campus' displacement.

This year, West Side School housed kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms, while fifth- and sixth-graders were at the middle school. West Side is situated at the intersection of Ross Lane and Old Stage Road, in a rural area about five miles northwest of Jackson Elementary. Before the Jackson move, it was last used as a school in 1980.

"The biggest challenge was having the upper grades split from the lower grades," said fourth-grade teacher Rachel Frison, who has taught at Jackson for 14 years. "Having the staff separated was challenging for grouping and not having all the materials here." The principal and media specialist split their time between two campuses, so library hours were inconsistent. Staff were occasionally at a loss in dealing with some disciplinary issues when the principal was away at the other campus.

"All of those will hopefully be resolved when the new school opens," Frison said.

She said the location of Jackson Elementary in the center of the students' neighborhood should help to restore the school's sense of community and increase parental involvement.

Classes still were in session at Hedrick, McLoughlin and Hoover Thursday, but by then, all of the Jackson and Roosevelt pupils had disappeared. They were dismissed two days early so their teachers could pack up classrooms. The remainder of the district's students will be released for winter break today.

At Hoover Elementary, where space had been so cramped that the district installed modular buildings, staff and students immediately felt the Roosevelt students' absence.

"If you looked out at the playground, it was visibly noticeable," said Hoover Principal Phil Meager.

There were 566 Hoover students and 205 Roosevelt students at the Hoover campus this school year.

"There are not many schools in Oregon that could have accomplished this: put two schools together with different socioeconomic groups and make it work with very few problems," Meager said. "It required a lot of cooperation."

The modular buildings added to Hoover's campus to accommodate the Roosevelt students will be removed Saturday, Meager said. Some Hoover teachers will move into larger classrooms that had been occupied by Roosevelt classes.

When students and staff left Jackson and Roosevelt in June 2007, they didn't know if they would return. At the time, an engineering firm had concluded both of the nearly century-old schools were structurally unstable, and the Medford School Board mulled over proposals to permanently close the buildings and have other schools absorb Jackson and Roosevelt pupils.

But a public outcry against the proposal prompted the School Board to dedicate funds toward rebuilding the two schools, which are among the district's few neighborhood schools in which many pupils walk to school from their homes.

"The connection with the kids is very, very strong," said Hassen, who has worked at Jackson for 17 years. "The teachers are very dedicated to the students, and that's one of the reasons we fought so hard for the school."

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