News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Thirty years of Sisters High School

Thirty years ago this week, Sisters School District welcomed high school students into a brand-new building, marking the first time since 1967 that grades 9-12 did not have to be bussed to Redmond to go to school.

Not only did the school opening change the lives of Sisters teenagers, it transformed the town in many ways.

A dozen original staff members from the 1992 opening gathered recently at The Barn to reconnect and to celebrate what was created in essentially a grassroots effort to develop a school that has since gained notoriety for its unique programming, culture, and opportunities for young people.

Dennis Dempsey arrived on the scene in 1991 as the principal of the new school, from Homer, Alaska, where he had been named the state’s principal of the year, to assist in overseeing the building project and to find teachers and support staff for the next school year for grades 7-12. Sisters had a vibrant K-8 school, so Dempsey inherited some staff members already in place, including Sisters native Rand Runco, who still works for the District.

According to Dempsey, the community was heavily invested with everything that needed to be done to get the school up and running.

“We had tremendous support from the very beginning and I think that is still evident today,” he said.

Dempsey described his vision from back in 1992 this way:

“My vision was that we would be a state-of-the-art school when it came to the use of technology. The goal was to be the best small high school in the country. I wanted it to be a place where students, staff, and parents felt welcomed and knew we were trying to do our best for the students we served. I knew we had to create a culture from scratch, where academics, sports, and the arts were married together with high expectations for everyone.”

The population within the Sisters City Limits at the time was around 700, compared to the current census count of just over 3,000. It is undeniable that the school’s arrival attracted families with school-aged children to the area, and the schools have become deeply interwoven with the a identity.

Lora Nordquist, who worked as a language arts teacher at the outset, and went on to be the middle school principal, and now is a deputy superintendent for Bend-La Pine School District, remembers that even the interview process for staff included the community. “I think there were a total of 15 people involved in the interviewing, including students and community members. They were so invested and it was clear from the beginning that they were looking for people who put kids first and had the ability to be flexible enough to figure out how to make a new school function.”

Suzanne Lind worked in the front office for many years.

“It was complete buy-in by all of the staff,” she said. “I don’t remember any slackers. It was a very special time, and one that I will cherish for a lifetime.”

She and others cite Dempsey’s leadership as key to the formation of what is now considered the “Outlaw Culture.”

“All the preplanning that Dennis led us through established the culture that we embraced,” said Lind.

Sue Beck worked as the media specialist and photography teacher.

“Dennis set the tone that our first priority was to do what was best for kids, and he trusted us to create curriculum and programs and culture that would ensure that,” Beck said.

Cohesiveness, collaboration, creativity, and flexibility were necessities for everyone involved. When the school year began and most of the furniture had still not been delivered, students sat on the floor. A heavy snowstorm followed by rapid melting started a flood of water that entered the hallway, forcing staff and students to work side-by-side to prevent the water from getting to the brand new wooden floor in the gym.

“We were all in it together,” said Nordquist, “and the kids themselves played a big role.

“You can’t build culture overnight,” Nordquist said. “Our juniors and seniors had been sort of outliers in Redmond, and now they had a school of their own. Dennis was instrumental in teaching students the importance of getting involved in school activities.”

Shane Weibel, one of 36 graduates in the class of 1993 said, “It was cool because I grew up in Sisters, and being able to have the opportunity to come back to my hometown was really amazing.”

Weibel explained that, as a Sisters kid in Redmond, there was “a disconnect.” The experience in Sisters was vastly different.

“At SHS it truly felt like the entire town was invested in us and the school,” he said. “It was like a homecoming, because some of the staff we had known from our junior high days were still there, including Rand Runco, (Dennis) Dempsey, Lindahl, (Jeff) Barton, (Chuck) DeKay, (Diana) Prichard, (Jim) Green, Pinky (Pagano), and Mrs. Lind.

Samra Spear was in her first year of teaching and is one of the last remaining crew members from 1992, along with Runco. She feels deeply grateful to not only have been part of the opening of the high school, but for the mentoring she received from fellow language arts teachers Lora Nordquist and Carol Dixon, and the rest of the original staff.

“As a new teacher and in the years that followed, every single person on the staff had a positive impact on me,” she said. “There was such a positive energy.”

Dempsey attributes the success of the school over the years to the school staff, and says that the enthusiasm of the community to get the school built in the first place has never wavered.

“If you look at the things that make Sisters schools unique it doesn’t take long to see that the schools are a reflection of the community,” he said. “The schools are vital to the community and vice versa.”

Spear also credits Dempsey for giving staff room to be creative and try new things. “Dennis trusted us and allowed us to take risks as long as we could show how it would benefit the students,” she said. “It was that sort of trust that eventually led us to be able to start programs like IEE, Americana, guitar building, and aviation, because we have had a culture that allows us to come up with things that other schools don’t do.”

Another unique start-up initiated through the school was Outlawnet. Technology teacher Jon Renner saw the need for Internet service in Sisters and created the business, which he operated with the help of students.

“Jon had an idea and got the green light to make it happen for the kids and the community,” said Dempsey.

While high standards and expectations were emphasized, there was also plenty of time built in for fun and memory making. For the first few years Dempsey and the staff organized a field day in the spring known as the Wacko Decathlon, which pitted classes against one another in silly games like “Chubby Bunny,” three-legged races, relays of all sorts, and everyone’s favorite: Jello, mud, and even Top Ramen wrestling. That was the last for the wrestling event, after a black bear showed up after school attracted to the dumpster filled with beef-flavored ramen.

“Clearly some of that stuff can’t be done anymore, but everything we did was designed to give kids a good education and to make some memories along the way,” said Dempsey.

Dempsey said, “We knew that the students had to have the same level of buy-in as the staff and it was our job to help them take ownership, which they did.”

Athletic teams had to be built from scratch. Bob Macauley taught middle school language arts at the time and coached the fledgling football team, which went 2-7 in its first year, but had nearly 40 kids on the squad in a school of fewer than 200 students. Before the decade was over the Outlaws had won two state titles. Volleyball, cross-country, track, and other sports have become perennial contenders at the state level, and Sisters still has a high percentage of students involved in athletics.

Dempsey recalled the first home football game with laughter.

“We didn’t have lights yet at the field so we had to play on Saturday afternoon and I announced the game from the bed of a pickup truck parked on the sidelines,” he said.

Rand Runco may have the deepest and widest view of all among SHS staff members. He grew up in Sisters and did the commute to Redmond throughout his high school years, and then returned to Sisters as a young teacher two years before the high school opened. He’s there today, as the dean of students.

One of the key cultural aspects that developed right from the beginning, according to Runco, was the honest, straightforward communication between staff, students and parents, which was modeled by Dempsey and the veteran teachers.

“Being an Outlaw was really special and I think we still have plenty of students who feel that way. Graduates continue to return and volunteer and be part of our school. Others have started families of their own and have come back to Sisters to be in our schools,” he said.

Like the original Outlaws in the new school, Runco sees current students who are ready to work hard, get involved, and be part of something beyond themselves. But he acknowledges that with time passing, the advent of digital rather than face-to-face communication, and the interruption of COVID-19, along with larger cultural change, the school has to be very intentional in keeping a culture that reflects the traditional Outlaw spirit.

Rima Givot, now in her 20th year as a science teacher at SHS, moved to Sisters in 1992 as a junior in high school. She echoes many of Runco’s observations.

“The teachers and staff are the culture keepers,” she said. “The commitment of our staff has remained strong since the beginning, and the relationship with the community is still vibrant, as is the collaboration that takes place.”

Carol Dixon taught 10th- and 12th-grade language arts. Though retired, she says that when she reads essays for scholarship applications, kids always comment on the level of support they experienced as students.

“They say, ‘I know my teachers and my teachers know me.’”

“The staff built a culture that made it fun to go to work,” Dempsey said. “We weren’t perfect and we made mistakes, but everyone kept rowing in the same direction to get our new school going in the right direction. We were all in the right place at the right time when we opened Sisters High School. We didn’t waste the opportunity to create a great school.”


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