Gene Merrill was born and raised in the rural Southern Oregon community of Cave Junction. Both of his parents dropped out of school after 8th grade, and he was the first person in his family to achieve a high school diploma. Today, he is the college and careers coordinator at the school he graduated from, Illinois Valley High School, part of Three Rivers School District.
Illinois Valley High School (IVHS) is making changes in how they teach and engage students as they pave the way for more students to graduate prepared for life after high school. As part of that endeavor, the school has created a new effort for college and career preparedness that Merrill is leading.
“Every student has a story and every student has their own hurdles and individual challenges,” Merrill said in this Q&A with America’s Promise. “And often it takes an individual person to help them overcome these roadblocks to success.”
Read the full spotlight below to learn more about how the work at IVHS is helping more students graduate high school.
Through our College & Career Center support effort, we offer students career awareness, job shadows, and job readiness support, and most excitedly, a robust internships program that is supported by a grant from the Ford Family Foundation. Our program allows students to participate in an internship placement during the school day two half days per week and receive .5 elective credit for one semester.
The program supplies transportation, workwear, some tools and any needed safety equipment. Students who complete an internship are awarded a $500 scholarship, and we have seen students use this as a catapult to make their post-secondary dreams a reality.
We have a variety of initiatives under way and due to fantastic District and Building Administrator support, have instituted changes that will better prepare students for the work world or their post-secondary educational plans. We interview our juniors to discover their interests and plans for life after high school and use this information to target career and college exploration to student interest. Especially popular are law enforcement ride alongs, and other career exploration activities that we call career highlights, giving students a chance to explore the daily goings on of a particular career area. We also offer college visits and have built strong relationships with the admissions coaches of many of the colleges and universities our students show interest in.
Our senior class, all of which are required to take a course called Senior Forum, create job resumes, financial awareness coursework, apply to at least one university, community college, trade school, or other program of study. Each student has opportunities to explore areas of interest to them personally, making the course apply to each of their individual lives and circumstances.
The capstone to the Senior Forum is the creation of their "13th year plan" and making a presentation to the class about them, their career interest, and the pathway they need to take to get there. We also coordinate with the local middle school to bring the 7th and 8th grade students up to the high school to talk to the seniors about their choices and what their plans are.
Since this is a course requirement, all students complete this, giving them experience in talking to people, talking about their choices, and sparking college and career interest in our community’s younger population.
How our community is coming together to support our students in career exploration through our internship program. This is brand new this year, and we have over two dozen sites taking on high school students. Students train and gain real world experience in areas that align with career interest for them—from internships in the medical world, various types of business and industry, to things like public works maintenance, building inspectors and water treatment for those not interested in college or trade school.
Students are gaining real world work experience coupled with exploring career areas before they begin college so they can be sure they want to pursue a particular career. This program has started with our small school, but some of the businesses in the nearest urban center are very interested in what we are doing, so we have began working with them to institute internship programs and are including the other high schools in our district as well as surround districts.
Ultimately, all of our students in Southern Oregon will have opportunities like this, due to the support of our communities. Our work with this program is ongoing, and we have begun the next steps through dialogue with Oregon Department of Education in creating internships that will provide CTE credits for our students.
With a graduation rate of barely over 63 percent in the 2016-17 school year, and post-secondary completion of roughly 20 percent, students in the area need hope. Having grown up here in rural Southern Oregon, I know full-well the mindset that many have—and the struggles students face as they go through school. Working with these students on a daily basis can be exhausting and challenging but also incredibly rewarding. Connecting with them is difficult due to the culture and history of the area, and I see teachers struggle with it daily.
IVHS is the smallest high school in what is the most financially challenged area of Oregon. Josephine County, which houses Three Rivers School District, is home to several of the poorest zip codes in the State of Oregon—in fact, the communities that students come to our school from are four of the five poorest in Oregon.
Small, unincorporated towns make up the majority of the area. Our gorgeous mountains and scenic rivers captivate tourists, but the beautiful scenery here means that over 70 percent of the land in Josephine County is owned by the Federal Government, making the property tax base extremely small. The geographic isolation coupled with a population who's median income is dramatically lower than the federal average means our students come from homes where higher education is a difficult goal to reach.
Our school district has been doing training in trauma-informed care and understanding how to impact students in a manner they will understand and implementing techniques that will help them succeed. One of the ways that we are seeing this be successful is in the student internships. The employers are invested and committed to really understanding a student and the students have come to know that they have an adult in their lives who truly wants to see them succeed. It has been amazing seeing the worksite supervisors go from “boss” to a true cheerleader and advocate for these students.
Something that really guides us is creating equal access to success for our students. The reality is that not all of our students are going to have an opportunity to go to college. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case from parental support, finances, and school performance. We’ve learned that not all students will complete a FAFSA, often by no fault of their own—many of our students’ parents will not complete the parent portion because of tax reasons. We’ve worked hard to create internships that help students become more knowledgeable about certifications and careers that require a high school diploma so there are pathways for everyone.
Customization is essential to the work we’re doing and to do it well we have to really see where a student’s pathway or interests are so we can help them realize success after graduation. However, this is a tough piece of work because it takes lots of time and investment, and we want to foster exploration rather than tracking a student into a particular field, but finding their needs, and meeting them where they are we are able to help them reach success. We’re lucky that our school district understands the importance of customization and they created the college and career positions. We also have tremendous community partnerships that provide professional mental health counseling to work along side the traditional academic school counselor.