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By Jim Cornelius
News Editor 

Someone called us Outlaws


Last updated 9/6/2022 at Noon

Sisters High School was one year old when my wife, Marilyn, and I moved to Sisters.

I thought it was pretty cool that the outfit called themselves the Outlaws, because there were Outlaws at the hub of my musical and cultural wheel. I understood that the Western moniker “Outlaw,” as Sisters High School meant it, had nothing to do with robbin’ banks and stagecoaches — it was about being untamed and untrammeled, like the wild horse they chose for their logo. That set well with the Outlaw ethos embodied by my musical hero, Waylon Jennings, whose credo was, “Don’t ever try and be like anybody else and don’t be afraid to take risks.”

From the very beginning, the Outlaws took risks and cut their own path. They set the bar for a Sisters High School diploma higher than the state standard. As Charlie Kanzig describes in this week’s page one story, teachers were empowered to experiment, to try different approaches to make education both academically and culturally more engaging.

The community of Sisters bought in at the beginning. Lifelong resident Debbie Newport recalls that in the late 1980s Sisters was developing a tourist economy — “but,” she said, “I don’t think there was core to the community at that point.”

In 1989, a wide range of community members — about 200 of them, a huge proportion of a small town — gathered at Sisters Rodeo Grounds to figure out how to build that core. Returning the students who had been going to high school in Redmond for decades back to the community quickly became the primary focus and the mission. The community took a risk; it put its money where its heart was. Voters passed a bond, and built what would become Sisters Middle/High School, which opened in 1992 — 30 years ago this month. (That facility is now Sisters Middle School.)

The first school board meeting I covered for The Nugget was packed. I thought, “Wow, this really is an engaged community!” What the agenda obscured was that the health curriculum discussion on tap revolved around sex education. Well, that explained it. Then as now, that sort of thing tends to get folks involved.

My first impression might have been exaggerated, but the community engagement was real.

The Sisters School District has been able to deliver innovative programs that are the envy of many larger districts, through partnerships with community members and organizations committed to enriching the lives of Sisters’ young people. Sisters Folk Festival partnered with the School District — starting at Sisters High School — to create the Americana Project, which used music as a way of building a cross-curricular foundation for students. A luthier program was added where students get hands-on CAD instruction around building guitars. Outlaw Aviation offers students a rare opportunity to study toward a pilot’s license and a potential career in aviation.

Where other districts cut arts programs, Sisters has been able to sustain them — because the whole community values them. Parents, volunteers, and the Sisters business community have developed a scholarship program — Sisters Graduate Resource Organization (GRO) — that ensures that every graduating senior has access to financial support for their post-graduation endeavors.

The examples of valuable community engagement are legion — and a good bellwether of the health of the schools.

Parents and community members without kids in the schools volunteer in the classroom and in co-curricular programs. Academic achievement has been solid and often outstanding.

The Outlaws have punched above their weight in sports, and have a case full of trophies to prove it.

Of course there have been bumps in the road — a share of the kind of missteps and controversies that inevitably dog any outfit that must serve a diverse and rapidly changing community over the course of three decades. There’s always room for improvement, and all of the schools have their work cut out for them getting back on an even keel after the disruptions of the past three years.

But a 30-year anniversary is a good opportunity to step back and recognize how remarkable the achievements of the pioneers who created Outlaw culture were, and how valuable is the legacy they have handed to their heirs.

Go Outlaws!

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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