The drive to Dorena is a quiet one. Th e two-lane highway doesn’t allow for congestion and the scenery, doesn’t allow for distraction.
Trees untouched by timber trade long enough to grow tall enough to encroach on the shoulder, line the road while the houses fade into the rearview mirror and a winding trail stretches away from Cottage Grove.
It’s easy to miss.
The sign is tethered to a chainlink fence just below the sight line and the shadow of fir leaves threaten its borders.
“Child’s Way” is barely visible.
The unpaved driveway yields to a cluster of house-like structures and in the middle, on the stoop of the main building more fit for a 1920’s commune in update New York than a school, stands Mike Kerns.
He watches teenagers chat at tables and lay in the grass, teachers play basketball and dogs run between. It’s lunchtime at Child’s Way and Kerns, principal of the charter school, stands watch.
Child’s Way currently houses 40 students from grades five through 12, sharing them among 10 teachers. With a different approach to teaching (and learning), there’s usually something exciting going on at the school in Dorena but this term, there’s something special.
Just beyond an art space lined with whiteboards for walls and a room scattered with typewriters, metal scrap and painting supplies there’s a shop. It sits behind heavy plastic strips reminiscent of old dock warehouses and steps away from the school’s bike shop and Ebay staging area and it’s currently home to, a house.
The students at Child’s Way are building a house. A tiny house.
“We’re doing more projects,” Kerns said. “It’s a wood shop project and when it’s done, we’re going to sell it.”
Students have been working on the project since September and have gotten far enough that the structure is recognizable for what it is. Studs form four walls and a roof. There’s a loft bed, a bathroom with a sink and a kitchen. An electric hot water heater sits on the rear of the house and wire and cables snake in and out of beams.
“We had an electrician come out and show them how to wire everything,” Kerns said. Next, they’ll be a plumber to help on the two days a week students venture into the space to work on the project.
“We’re not going fast,” Kerns said. “They’ve actually built it twice already. If it’s screwed so the stud doesn’t line up with the base plate, they have to do it again.”
Materials for the house, other than a portion of the wood that was donated, come out of the school’s budget and when the house sells, they’ll buy material to build another one.
And the kids chip in.
Not far from the tiny house, piles of donated items sit waiting to be fixed, cleaned and photographed so they can be listed on Ebay or Craigslist. The item staged and ready for its close-up—a bike, that was fixed by students in the bike shop to the right of the online-selling operation— Kerns said, is worth several hundred dollars.
“They (the students) do a lot of research to price the items,” he said.
The shop gives way to narrow hallways dotted with antiques and things from yesteryear and classrooms that hold no more than eight children per class, outfitted with leather chairs for reading in, long tables for group discussions and piles and piles of fabric for sewing and stitching.
The dogs have ventured back inside, some on leashes, some following close behind a teacher. Others, nestled comfortable in beds tucked away in the corner of a classroom.
There’s seven, Kerns says. Three of them, service dogs.
Standing again on the stoop, Kerns searches for an answer on why parents would choose Child’s Way.
“They want a small school,” he says. “Maybe it’s that we don’t say ‘ok you’re getting in trouble’ and kick them out. I don’t know, really,” he adds. “It’s really just word of mouth.