Families weigh in on first year at Four Rivers Charter

By John L. Braese

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – The Four Rivers Community School recently finished its first year as an Oregon high school in a controversial expansion that is still roiling the education community.

Daniella Martinez goes on to be a sophomore next year, on track to be pat of the first graduating class in Four Rivers’ history. The school teaches classes in both English and Spanish to make students proficient in both.

Martinez has attended the Ontario charter school since first grade. Her brother and sister both attended Ontario High School and Martinez assumed that would also be her high school.

“When Four Rivers announced they were going to have a high school, I just could not believe it was real,” Martinez said. “I thought it was really cool.”

Martinez said there were some small bumps in the road as the first high school class, but she and the 28 other freshmen worked together to make the year work.

“We did a lot of bonding,” she said. “For a first class, I think it went well.”

That first year of school played against a backdrop of contention between Four Rivers and the bigger and older Ontario School District. Ontario officials unsuccessfully sought state help to put the brakes on Four Rivers’ move into high school. With each student shifting to the charter school, Ontario loses money.

Officials at the Education Department tried to mediate, and the state board recently agreed to cap enrollment in the high school at Four Rivers.

Seemingly forgotten in the bureaucratic fight are the students themselves. Two families offered their own assessments of what high school is like at the charter school.

Martinez said her siblings supported her decision to stay at Four Rivers.

“They really did not enjoy their time at Ontario High School,” Martinez said.

With a family history to compare with her own, Martinez said she does wonder about prom and sports, two activities not fully developed at Four Rivers.

“We had a few dances and we are just starting up sports at Four Rivers,” she said.

A high point for Martinez was having school on the campus of Treasure Valley Community College.

“It was just so super cool to be on a college campus,” Martinez said. “The food there is so much better.”

A classmate of Martinez was a newcomer to Four Rivers and spoke no Spanish.

Mattie Nieskens attended Vale schools through eighth grade. Walking out of Vale Middle School, Nieskins knew advancing to Vale High School was not the right fit.

“I actually thought about Four Rivers midway through my eighth grade year,” Nieskens said. “Before that, I had never even heard of the school. I really did not know even know where it was.”

She has an aunt and uncle who are teachers at Four Rivers. After speaking with them, she toured the school before deciding to attend.

As she walked through the doors for her first day as a freshman, one problem stood out immediately.

“I only spoke three or four words of Spanish,” she admitted. “At first, it kind of made me feel like an outsider.”

With some extra work and help from other students, Nieskens picked up what was being said in the class.

Now, one year later, Nieskens is fully involved in both the education and community aspects of the school.

“I think I fit in well at Four Rivers,” she said. “I started cheer and really like it.”

Nieskens admits leaving her old group of friends does have drawbacks.

“We don’t see each other as often as before,” she said. “Four Rivers also does not offer as many sports and clubs as I would have seen in Vale.”

The choice of a new school also brought changes in how Nieskens views her community.

“The students at Four Rivers act different,” she said. “They are better behaved in school than Vale was. They focus more and there is more one-on-one between students and teachers.”

Like Martinez, Nieskens loves the fact classes for Four Rivers are held on the local college campus.

“I think being on the college campus prepares us for the future,” said Nieskens. “I have already met many college professors and it has convinced me I want to go to college.”

The choice to leave the Vale school system for Four Rivers was a family decision at the Nieskens household.

“Vale is home, but this was ultimately her choice,” said Kristen Nieskens, her mother.

“The big turning point for us as parents was she really wanted to learn a second language and that is something colleges are asking for,” said Nieskens. “I really feel the other school districts are lacking in the bilingual area.”

Logistics were a problem.

“My sister teaches there so she usually takes Mattie over in the morning,” said Nieskens. “The problem is she has to be there an hour early so Mattie started helping with tutoring younger students in the morning to burn the hour.”

Nieskens said cheer practices after school sometimes interfered with a busy family schedule.

Nieskens said she is impressed with the openness of the school towards parents.

“I have every opportunity to go into a classroom and see what is going on that I want,” she said. “I did not see that in Vale.”

The choice of Four Rivers created some good-natured fun at home.

“Her older brother, a Vale graduate, teases her about going to an Ontario school all the time,” said mom. “This was the choice for Mattie’s situation. The rest of my children have every intention of attending Vale schools until graduation.”

Both mother and daughter said the experience has opened their eyes in other ways.

“I have seen parents that don’t speak any English and work really hard and make sacrifices for their kids,” said her mom. “I think, as family, we now better understand cultural differences better than we ever did before.”

“I think after seeing everything my parents can give me that others don’t get, I have more gratitude,” Mattie said. “I have never regretted the decision.”

Have a news tip? Contact reporter John L. Braese at 541-473-3377 or [email protected].