Saturday afternoon’s Wheeler County High School graduation ceremony will be short and sweet.
The names of each graduate — Jacob Hoover, Miranda Morrow and Jason Ramsey — will ring through the gymnasium and each of them will walk across the stage to receive their diploma. There will be baskets left in the doorway, where residents can drop a congratulations card or a few dollars to help pay college tuition. After a short speech and photo slideshow, the assembled crowd will shuffle out into the streets of Fossil, population 446.
Hoover, Morrow and Ramsey are the 2018 graduating class at Wheeler County High, and their small class size speaks to the shrinking and aging dynamics of frontier Oregon.
Fossil was never going to be a large school, but the class of 2018 started in first grade with more than a dozen classmates, then dropped to between 7 and 9 by the beginning of high school. By the time graduation rolled around, only Hoover, Morrow and Ramsey remained. Hoover spent his whole life in the school district here, Morrow and Ramsey arrived in sixth grade.
According to Jim Smith, superintendent of the 26-student Fossil School District, it’s not easy to be a young family in the area.
“It’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said of the cause of declining enrollment and shrinking class sizes. “Some families have to leave (the area) ... their ranch job is done, or they get a better offer in Pendleton or The Dalles.”
Smith said the median age in Fossil is about 65. Most residents are retirees on fixed incomes who appreciate the cheap housing, the good local medical clinic, as well as a slow and quiet lifestyle.
But that’s not what the three recent graduates are looking for. Each are moving away from Fossil to further their education, and none said they plan to return.
Hoover will head to Eastern Oregon University in La Grande to study pre-physical therapy. He said he suffered from ankle problems when he was younger, and the good work of a physical therapist helped him realize what an important job that can be.
Morrow will attend Central Oregon Community College in Bend with the goal of becoming a nurse. She said she’s both worried and excited about learning in much-larger classrooms in a much-larger school.
“It will definitely be different,” she said. “It won’t be as laid back as this school.”
Ramsey is moving the farthest afield. He plans to attend Northland Pioneer College in Holbrook, Arizona, to study fire science. He said his family has been involved in rural firefighting his whole life, and a career in the industry seemed like the natural path. The Arizona college is cheaper than his options in Oregon, he said.
Superintendent Smith called all three of the graduates “high character kids with highly engaged patients and great moral character.” They’re also just kids. He remembers them spending last summer sprucing up the school’s locker rooms and getting more paint on each other than the lockers.
“Your typical teenagers,” he said.
He knows that, statistically speaking, their odds of success in college are worse than their urban counterparts. He notes a study by the state that showed freshman dropout rates at Oregon colleges were much higher for students who came from 1A, 2A, and 3A schools — the smallest high schools in the state as classified by the Oregon School Activities Association.
“In college, everything is ramped up socially and emotionally,” he said. “It’s hard for a rural kid.”
The three Wheeler County graduates have rarely, if ever, sat down next to a student they didn’t know. They’ve never had to find a seat in a crowded lunchroom. They’ve never had to wait until class is over to request one-on-one time with a teacher.
“No school is perfect,” said Smith. “There’s pros and cons to everything. We know these kids, and they don’t fall through the cracks here.”
But he knows, and the Class of 2018 knows, that a small school can be monotonous. The same teachers, the same friends, the same personalities — at a time when young people are changing dramatically.
Still, the Fossil School District is finding a way to succeed. The school has had 19 graduates in the last four years and 15 of them are currently in college. One joined the military and the others are in the workforce.
Even if it’s small, it’s still just school — a stereotypical high school experience in some ways.
“There’s still somewhat of a big drama, still football games,” said Morrow, even if the team has to combine with high schools in Spray and Mitchell to field a full squad.
They didn’t have a prom this year because they found out early that “none of us dances.” So the whole high school got together for a game night and “formal bonfire,” the memory of which made all three of them laugh.
They’re friends, and probably closer and more knowledgeable about each other than classmates at larger high schools. Without even speaking, Hoover and Ramsey knew when Morrow had a bad morning and wouldn’t be in a good mood that school day.
“We gave her more space when she showed up in her pajamas,” they laughed.
“We know each other’s limits,” said Ramsey.
Each admitted graduation would be bittersweet. They’re excited about the future but sad to leave each other, their school and their comfortable lives.
“It’ll be hard leaving everything I’ve grown up knowing,” said Hoover. “I’ve lived here for 17 years. Jason and I, we’ve been so close ... being separated is going to be really hard and different.”
They all said they’d keep in touch after graduation, June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Wheeler High School gymnasium.