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Coming from Sherwood, Carey Wilhelm immerses herself in OCHS campus life immediately

Oregon City High School's new principal has shown her willingness to get her hands dirty on behalf of the Pioneers.

COURTESY PHOTO - Carey Wilhelm, new principal of Oregon City High School, gets her hand painted by Alison Slyter, a member of the Student Council.Before the school year even started, Carey Wilhelm had her hand painted by Student Council members who were painting an area of their classroom. A few students placed their handprints on the wall as they painted during a council retreat in August, and Wilhelm joined in.

Recently appointed as the principal of the school with nearly 2,000 students, Wilhelm camped out in a tent on campus as part of the retreat. She said newly appointed OCHS Associate Principal Stacy Erickson stayed with her in a tent as they chaperoned the approximately 30 Student Council members sleeping in nearby tents on the evening of Aug. 2.

"It was a great time to meet some amazing students, hear about the great events that are planned for the year, and let the students at OCHS know that I'm here for them," Wilhelm said. "It was a great time, and I was really tired the next morning."

On Aug. 3, Wilhelm joined the Student Council as they worked on setting their goals for the year. Wilhelm's goals included the creation of a Student Advisory Team that will meet with her monthly. She said the 16-student group would include four from each grade level who are picked by counselors to be as diverse as possible, meeting monthly as part of Wilhelm's goal to remain engaged with students.

"My role is to listen to students, staff and families about how they feel and how we can do better, and that's something that we need to do better as a society," Wilhelm said.

Tackling issues

Wilhelm came to OCHS from Sherwood High School, a similarly large campus where she had been serving as associate principal. Prior to getting her job in Sherwood in 2013, Wilhelm served for nine years teaching math, while coaching basketball and track at Woodburn High School.

Wilhelm says, with her experience at large high schools in Oregon, she's ready to face the challenges at OCHS. In the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 election, OCHS students experienced an uptick in racial incidents perpetrated by students against fellow classmates.

"Not everyone has to have the same lifestyle and values, but we have to respect one another," she said. "Sherwood hadn't been in the news like Oregon City had, but during the election there was a lot of student-led support for immigration.

"Some of the students walked out to encourage the legislators to pass gun laws, and other student groups defending their right to bear arms wanted to protest that walkout, and we had to figure out how they would all coexist and express their rights to have an opinion."

Wilhelm wants to help teachers in their goal for every Oregon City student to graduate high school. OCHS's graduation rate went up from 89% to a record high of 93.6% for students scheduled to graduate in 2016. That four-year rate went down to 90.4% for the cohort that was scheduled to graduate OCHS in 2017.

"Oregon City High School has worked really hard in the past to improve graduation rates," Wilhelm said. "Our graduation rate can still improve by targeting the students who are not graduating, what demographic they are, and finding out what more we can do for them."

Wilhelm said, in particular, support systems can be bolstered among special-education and nonwhite populations, many of whose families speak English as a second language, which saw disproportionate drops in graduation rates according to the latest available data.

"We need to really work on partnering with teachers who are working with those students day to day and figure out how we can support them," Wilhelm said.

Additional funding could help Oregon City and other school districts across the state raise graduation rates. Passed by the Oregon Legislature in May, the Student Success Act, or House Bill 3427, is a new corporate activity tax that is estimated to generate an additional $1 billion per school year for education programs and initiatives across the state. Funds are expected to be made available to school districts starting in the 2020-21 school year.

"Education is not funded enough in the state of Oregon or anywhere," Wilhelm said. "It seems like we're using our resources really well, and we can always use more."

Oregon City School District spokesman Michael Clark said the additional funding probably will not be enough to hire back all the staff for programs that had to be cut during previous funding shortfalls that school districts across the state have experienced over the past two decades.

"What's on the board is what's been cut year after year, like counselors who are in dire need across the district," Clark said.

Finding her niche

In her office, Wilhelm has a poster quoting anthropologist Wade Davis, "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."

She would like Oregon City students to learn how to express their opinions appropriately, which she considers "an important job" of educators everywhere.

"Let's talk about our differences, whether it be cultural differences or sexual orientation," she said. "If you learn other people's stories, you have a hard time not liking them."

Wilhelm considers students at OCHS, as a comprehensive high school, lucky to have such a variety of students and outlets for expression.

"There are so many programs for students to find their niche, and I want to help students find that," she said. "I'm excited to get to know this community in a variety of ways and continue to build unity within the school."

Completing her administrative license at George Fox University in 2011, Wilhelm holds a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in teaching from Willamette University. Having played basketball, soccer and track while attending McMinnville High School, she became a "huge" prep sports fan early in her life. She promises to become the "biggest cheerleader" for the OCHS Pioneers by attending various sports events and other school activities, often with her 2- and 4-year-old children in tow.

Attending a school play, Wilhelm cried during a production of "Elephants Graveyard," put on by the drama department last season. She'll also encourage students, teachers and staff to volunteer on behalf of the greater community outside of schools.

"Getting involved outside of the classroom is beneficial to the students, but it's also beneficial to the community," she said. "Being a native Oregonian is important to me, and I have a real love for the communities in this area."

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