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April 16, 2021 LA GRANDE, Ore. – Thick dust and a selection of bird droppings cover what used to be bustling high school hallways. A small group of students from Eastern Oregon University are some of the first to leave footprints since the school was abandoned in 2009, but their visit marks a turning point for the historic building.
These students, all majoring in Sustainable Rural Systems at EOU, will play a key role in transforming the contaminated building into a functional community asset.
The Sustainable Rural Systems program opened in fall 2020. After two terms of virtual and then on-campus meetings, students took their first field trip on April 14. Professor Shannon Donovan arranged for the small class to visit the former Baker Central High School building, which was recently designated as a brownfield. An EPA assessment found lead and asbestos contamination in tiles and paint, but students could safely walk through the building so long as they didn’t disturb the collected dust particles.
“It’s a bigger building than I expected, and I was surprised how worn down things are and how much work it’ll take to clean it up,” said EOU junior Joanna Campbell. “It’s cool to think about how it could be transformed, and I’m excited to work through the whole process.”
EOU’s Sustainable Rural Systems program is designed with a cohort model so groups of students work on real-world, multi-year projects to restore and enhance sites in eastern Oregon. The one-of-a-kind curriculum combines environmental science, public administration, community organizing, project management and leadership. EOU faculty collaborated with Baker Technical Institute’s existing brownfields program that engages high school students in similar work.
BTI instructor Robbie Langrell led the building tour, and has worked with a group of local stakeholders to earn an EPA grant that will fund decontamination of the site. Following their visit, EOU students will draft a request for proposal and open the bidding process for contractors who want to take on the project.
Langrell will use the students’ work to begin interviewing contractors and ultimately select a company that will safely remove hazardous materials from the building. Once it’s cleaned up, she expects to put it on the market for sale or further development. Airy classrooms on the second and third floors could become studio apartments or host exercise classes with a world-class view of the surrounding mountains. The school’s theatre, gym, home economics and choir facilities are still recognizable, and could feature in the building’s second life.
This is the first of many hands-on projects Sustainable Rural Systems cohorts will tackle. The same four students who visited the dark, messy building will return regularly throughout the restoration process and have a role in its revitalization.
“You get to see for yourself and have the first-person experience of being here,” EOU junior Monte Zufelt said of the visit. “I hope to be able to see the progress as we move forward with hiring contractors.”
Learn more about the Sustainable Rural Systems degree at eou.edu/sustainable-rural-systems. Applications are open now for fall 2021.
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