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CRYC teaches job skills, knowledge through community projects

After 20 years, Columbia River Youth Corps program still instructing students in alternative setting

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Project coordinator Kevin Staley, Keaton Kornhauser, a sophomore, and Karlito Arellano, a junior, clean out a storage space for gardening supplies to go on Monday, May 9. Students work on a variety of planting projects in the area including helping to replant native plant species through partnerships with local organizations.For high school students in the Columbia River Youth Corps, school days don’t resemble those in traditional classroom settings.

But for many in the program, the dynamic environment is what attracted them in the first place.

Columbia River Youth Corps, or CRYC, is one of two alternative high school programs the St. Helens School District offers to high school students who may be struggling academically in a traditional high school setting. The program divides students’ time between traditional classroom learning and outdoor, hands-on work projects to break up the school day and give students more individualized academic attention.

The class, which maxes out at 18 students, breaks into two crews on a weekly basis. “Crew One” and “Crew Two,” as they call themselves, split their time working with classroom teacher Terri Lewis and project coordinator Kevin Staley.

When students are in the classroom, they get one-on-one instruction time with Lewis. Several students in the class, like Keaton Kornhauser, a sophomore, and Karlito Arellano, a junior, said the individualized attention has helped them learn more than they ever would in a normal classroom.

“My favorite part is the people and how you make family. It’s not just friends, you make relationships,” Michael Berlingen, a junior in the program, said.

When students are on field crew duty, they perform a variety of tasks, including tree planting, pulling invasive plant species, and cleaning out the school’s native plant nursery, which the CRYC started through a partnership with the Oregon Northwest Restoration Project based out of Tillamook.

Other sponsors of the program include the Bureau of Land Management, Scappoose Bay Watershed Council and the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Jason Dunn, a senior, Michael Berlingen, a junior, and Nick Hickman, a sophomore, help clean up the plant nursery at the Columbia River Youth Corps school house on Monday, May 9. Students in the program split their time between classroom learning and outdoor community projects.“I love working,” said Kornhauser, a sophomore in the program. “Sometimes it’s fun to get out and not stay at a desk taking tests.”

Each week differs for the students, but Lewis and Staley also try to incorporate field trips into their schedules and expose the students to higher education environments whenever possible. Just last week, Lewis said she took the students to Portland State University for the school’s Law Day event where students could learn about various law degree programs.

Lewis added that the diversity of each day makes her job enjoyable. She works with students in three grade levels in all subjects from English to math to physical education.

“My favorite part is that I don’t repeat the same lesson over and over for three periods a day,” she laughed.

When CRYC first began in 1996, Lewis helped pilot the class out of Forest Grove High School with the Columbia County Parks Department as the project’s main sponsor. Twenty years later, Lewis is still teaching the class for St. Helens High School students. She saw the program as a great educational tool for students who enjoyed working outdoors and immersing themselves in a variety of projects.

Staley, who has been working with CRYC for 10 years, said he enjoys getting to “help students who might not find success so readily after high school” by teaching them work skills in a tactile, applicable way.

“It’s not just about pulling out dead trees,” Staley said. “It’s about learning skill and learning hands-on skills.”

The CRYC program has fluctuated in scale depending on demand and the needs of all students in the school district, but Lewis said she has seen the payoff for students year after year.

“They become life-long learners,” Lewis said. “They’re more interested in learning because they’re in an environment that worships that.”