School is back in session

Kids Unlimited Academy is region’s only year-round public school

Students at Kids Unlimited Academy in August were the first locally to reenter public school classrooms. In its third year offering a year-round academic calendar, KUA has added a morning enrichment block to complement its afterschool enrichment courses for kindergarten through middle school. The new morning enrichment coincides with breakfast service and gives students up to 50 minutes of math, literacy and STEAM games and activities with the goals of classroom readiness and socio-emotional development.

“This school year, we are excited to provide a more meaningful morning routine for our students,” said KUA Principal Lindsay Ochs. “This morning block will serve as a space for students to better prepare for the academic school day.”

KUA also has new leadership. Ochs served last year as KUA vice principal, bringing with her 20 years of experience as both a classroom teacher and administrator in the North Clackamas school district. KUA’s new director of school culture, Emmanuel Balan, worked in Medford and Eagle Point school districts since moving to Southern Oregon from Los Angeles four years ago. With more than 25 years of education experience, Balan will focus on behavior systems and discipline at KUA.

The school is embarking on a transition away from middle school in the 2023-24 academic year with about half the numbers of 6th, 7th and 8th graders in a typical year. Administrators, teachers, parents and students weighed numerous local factors and nationwide trends to arrive in April at the decision to phase out KUA middle school in the 2024-25 academic year. Middle school opportunities for KU afterschool enrichment and summer, winter and spring break camps, however, remain a vital part of the organization’s programming.

The change is the first step toward aligning KUA’s remaining kindergarten through 5th grade enrollment with other Medford 549C elementary schools, as 6th graders districtwide will be newly encompassed in three middle schools, said KU CEO Tom Cole. KUA also will refocus on its original mission of providing children at the primary level with resources to thrive academically, emotionally and socially.

The longer-term KUA mission is high school graduation, college success — and beyond, said Cole. This mission was confirmed in surveys and meetings of KUA parents, students, staff and the school board.

The KUA board had wrestled with the challenge of building a better high school transition program, said retired Principal Jani Hale. They considered whether KUA’s exiting 8th graders were enrolling in 9th grade courses for college-bound students. Questions around how well students formed friendships and adjusted to high school also played a role.

KUA’s first class of 8th graders will graduate high school this year. KUA formed as a public charter school, initially serving 1st through 3rd grades, in 2013. By 2016, the school had expanded to kindergarten through 6th grades and is free to 549C students.

KUA added pre-K to its student body in 2019, expanding in 2020 to its White City campus to serve students in the Eagle Point school district, as well as transfers. The expansion helps to alleviate a local — and nationwide — shortage of quality pre-K programs and affordable child care.

Dates to remember

Sept. 22: KUA jog-a-thon at St. Mary’s School

Oct. 27: KUA Dinner Theater

Oct. 31: KUA Harvest Festival, Trunk-or-Treat

Nov. 17: KUA Family Night

We’re celebrating 25 years, and your generosity can make an impact all year!

A gift of just $25 provides a student’s uniform for Kids Unlimited Academy, fills a desk with school supplies or purchases an entire week of school lunches.

Donate $250 to sponsor a class field trip, plant our school garden or fire our ceramics kiln. Contributions of $2,500 support our sports teams and boost our scholarship fund for graduating high school seniors.

Lindsay Ochs

Principal Kids Unlimited Academy

I’ve been at KUA since March! I was in a Portland area district for 18 years before coming here.

My favorite part about working at KUA is the students, staff and families! Since coming here, I’ve met amazing people in all of those groups. I love seeing students happy at and fully engaged in school — and then meeting and connecting with the wonderful families that these students come from. I also have the best administrative team in the entire world!

Next year, I’m most excited about continuing to build connections with students, staff and families. I love all the family nights we do here at KUA — I’m looking forward to a few new ones that we have planned. Additionally, I love being a strong instructional leader. I’m excited to get into classrooms and work directly with teachers and students!

In my free time, I love to WORK OUT, spend time with my family and explore our new hometown. You might also catch me at Costco on a weekly basis!

KU honored among ‘friends’ of Medford City Parks, Recreation

Lupita Vargas, left, Kids Unlimited Director of Educational Services, accepts a city award from Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino.

More than being a “friend,” Kids Unlimited has helped to hone the focus of Medford Parks, Recreation and Facilities.

That’s how Rich Rosenthal, department director, described the relationship that led to KU’s acknowledgement as a “Friend of Medford Parks and Recreation.” Medford City Council and Mayor Randy Sparacino on July 20 bestowed the award, accepted on behalf of KU by Director of Educational Services Lupita Vargas.

“In my opinion, (it’s) long overdue,” said Rosenthal of the 19th annual award presented to KU, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

In its early years, the nonprofit relied more heavily on city parks and other facilities for its programming. But strong partnerships continue between KU and the city, including low-cost swimming lessons at Jackson Pool.

“As a KU kid, one of my favorite field trips was going to Bear Creek Park,” said Vargas. “I still remember the wooden playground that felt like a huge magical castle. My friends and I would play the best games of freeze tag.”

“We’ve had a lot of interactions with Tom (Cole) and Kids Unlimited over the years,” said Rosenthal. “Their mission is consistent with ours.”

But sometimes the missions were best served when the City stepped aside so KU could do what it does best, said Rosenthal. Specifically, KU’s afterschool programs have been so well-received and effective that Medford Parks and Rec avoided developing similar programs that would duplicate efforts and services, he said.

“Sometimes the best thing we can do is make sure Tom has the bandwidth to accomplish what he wants to accomplish,” said Rosenthal of KU’s founder and executive director.

“We are honored by the recognition,” said Cole. “The City of Medford parks department has provided some great experiences for our kids and families over the decades, and we are truly grateful for their partnership and commitment to our kids.”

Other youth organizations that previously received the award include Logos Public Charter School, Kid Time Children’s Museum, Rogue Valley BMX, Spartan Boxing and others. The Council also designated as Parks and Rec “friends”: Jim Hutchins for lifetime service, Dr. Alan Frierson for his work in Prescott Park, youth soccer coaches Jorge Ruiz, Marco Cortez and Eduardo “Lalo” Ibarra and business sponsor Jamba/Auntie Anne’s.

Parks and Rec commissioners vote on the award recipients. Nominations come from various city staff and managers.

Alumni Achievement

Kids Unlimited’s afterschool and summer programs helped me become a well-rounded individual. The relationships I formed with a diverse group of students and staff enabled me to connect and build friendships with people from all walks of life. Lastly, my involvement in KU basketball taught me discipline, patience and a strong work ethic.

One of my most memorable moments during my time at Kids Unlimited was attending the basketball game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Rose Garden. Witnessing Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen play was truly inspiring, motivating me to put in extra effort both on the court and in the classroom.

KU played an integral role in my life, providing me with a sense of belonging. At KU, I learned to tackle more challenges and embrace new opportunities with confidence.

During my sophomore year at Bowdoin College, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Common Good Grant, which allowed me to intern at KU’s summer camp. As a migrant education specialist, I taught and mentored students. I taught workshops on college readiness.

It’s remarkable how a small ripple can create a significant wave.

Murder mystery unfolds at KUA dinner theater production

Performing arts students get in the spooky spirit every fall at Kids Unlimited Academy.

KUA’s Royal Kids Theatre plans its fourth annual murder mystery performance at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27. A three-course dinner, prepared by KU’s Food Program, accompanies the show. Tickets are $15, all-inclusive and available by advance reservation.

The dinner theater format invites many KUA students to participate in a variety of capacities, said music and theater teacher BriAnna Johnson. The onstage cast comprises about 14 student roles — Celebrity, Writer, Doctor, Ladykiller and an unexpected visitor that joins this devious dinner party.

“The KUA kitchen and culinary students help create and execute the menu,” said Johnson. “Students work as servers, learning to be professionals, and even the audience gets to participate!”

Purchase tickets at and click over to to support our enrichment programs in the arts.

KU afterschool golfers get in the swing with NFL star

A professional look at golf culminated for Kids Unlimited youth in face time with a football pro.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. recognized the efforts of KU youth golfers while hosting a benefit golf tournament for the organization. The Royal Cup is a two-person scramble at Eagle Point Golf Club that complements KU’s annual fundraising auction and gala every June.    

“The opportunity from Odell Beckham Jr. was amazing for these kids,” said KU student services coordinator Andrea Gee. “Even though he is a NFL player, he plays golf, too, and enjoys it. These students understood you can love or do more than one sport.

“Odell met with all these students and gave them signed merchandise — that was a highlight in itself.”

KU’s afterschool enrichment enrolled about 40 students for the 2022-23 in a golf program sponsored by Tribal 1. Learning the basics of the sport from two PGA Professional instructors, most of the kids had never before played golf, said Gee.

“It gave them an insight to a new sport they may — or may not — ever have had the opportunity to play before this program,” said Gee.

The program also provided jerseys. And the host course, Bear Creek Golf Course in Medford, extended the opportunity to return anytime to hit balls with their families — for free.

“Most of the kids wanted to continue playing after our program was over,” said Gee.

To find out more about supporting sports at KU, go to

Camp signifies summer for many KU families

Summer is synonymous with Kids Unlimited camp for hundreds of Southern Oregon families.

Water play, field trips, outdoor games and creative projects have been KU mainstays for the past 25 years. Designed to meet working families’ schedules from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., KU camps are based at Medford’s Oak Grove, Roosevelt and Washington elementary schools.

“There’s so many things that you could do,” said Program Director Judy Patterson of this year’s “around-the-world theme.”

For eight weeks, campers explored the globe’s continents, countries, cultures and cuisines. Campers particularly enjoyed preparing international recipes, including crepes, tortillas and Italian sodas, said Patterson.

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activities ranged from painting and origami to building catapults and launching bottle rockets. Field trips to Wildlife Images, Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery, Willow-Witt Ranch and Rogue Valley Family Fun Center were weekly highlights, along with a final summer at Medford’s now-closed Jackson Pool, said Patterson.

“Our water days are popular,” she said. “The amount of activities that we do — it’s not free time all the time.”

KU summer camp serves about 275 kindergarten through fifth graders from Phoenix, Talent, Medford and Central Point, said Patterson. Registration starts in the spring, and there’s often a waiting list, with many families who rely upon camp returning year after year, she said. Camp costs $150 per week, and donations to KU support scholarships for participants.

Annual report available online

As we celebrate 25 years of youth development, we reflected back on the struggles and triumphs of this past year. Following the pandemic, new challenges tested our core identity like never before. Our 2022 report demonstrates how in the face of massive societal shifts, we expanded our services, provided stability and hope for kids and stayed true to our foundational mission.
Read the report at

Building a better bridge from pre-K to kindergarten was a recent focus of early childhood educators at Kids Unlimited Academy.

Using guidelines developed by Oregon Department of Education, the KUA group of teachers, instructional assistants and administrators confirmed kindergarten readiness largely is determined by social-emotional skills. These include children’s sense of identity and belonging, healthy emotional functioning, social awareness, self-management, relationships with trusted adults and other children and basic conflict resolution with their peers.

“And parents don’t really realize that,” said Betty Goodson, a KUA program manager who works with pre-K students. “Parents are like: ‘They need to write their name.’”

While holding a pencil is a key indicator of kindergarten readiness, the KUA group acknowledged it’s a skill built over time through myriad fine motor activities. Constructing with Legos, squeezing Play-Doh and even the age-old craft of knitting all build the muscle strength needed to grip and manipulate a writing implement, educators said.   

“If you want your child to write their name … we’re gonna do some beading, any of those things that you use your fingers for,” said KUA pre-K teacher Ami Hines.

Teachers referenced building “stamina throughout the year” for certain kindergarten skills, even sitting in one place for a prescribed period of time. Designated seating areas, such as carpets and cushions, help to define spaces where students are expected to focus on lessons. Routines and structure in the school day are paramount for preparing students for kindergarten, teachers said.

Parents aren’t always attuned to their children’s social skills because kids often don’t behave at home the way they do in large peer groups, teachers said. Some pre-K students can’t even start school within the entire class group, they said, because the environment can be too overwhelming.

“Now they have 17 other brothers and sisters all day long,” said Goodson of the classroom experience.

“We know that in many homes, talking is not encouraged,” said now retired KUA Principal Jani Hale, adding that some kids simply stare during conversations.

Yet nearly 74% of KUA students meet ODE’s language expectations with almost 10% exceeding, according to a 2022-23 report. More than 68% met the expectations for cognitive functioning and nearly 64% for social-emotional skills.

As teachers mapped out their timelines for instruction to identify yearlong goals for kindergarten readiness, most agreed they loop back to certain skills, especially after the three-week winter break. Hale dispelled the notion that teacher and student timelines are straight and characterized them more like “treasure maps.”

“All of the standards are just taught continuously throughout the year,” said Crystal Hidde, KUA Director of Early Learning.

KU’s first scholarship fund to benefit recent graduates

As many as 40 alumni of Kids Unlimited Academy could benefit from the charter school’s first scholarship fund.

Named for longtime KU board chair Chuck Martinez, the “Charlie’s Angels” fund was instituted at the organization’s 25th anniversary gala auction. Donors attending the June 23 event raised their auction paddles to pledge amounts ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars toward the first scholarships.

The awards are open not only to students who are college-bound but also continuing their education through trade schools and apprenticeships, said KU CEO Tom Cole. Ranging in dollar amounts, awards will be based on need, he said, and take into account any other resources that prospective recipients may have.

KU alumni at the gala attested to Martinez’s influence on their career pursuits and successes. Instrumental in the charter school’s creation, said Cole, Martinez was a model of generosity, not only with his money, but his time and mentorship of KU youth.

“We are so grateful for the generosity of our donors to create Chuck’s ‘angels fund’ to help scholarships for graduates of KU Academy. To know that they can be supported to take the next steps in college and career goals is really humbling.”

KUA school garden sows seeds of success

Harvesting the fruits of their summer labors, students at Kids Unlimited Academy simultaneously planned the school’s winter garden.

Students from pre-K to fifth grade attend twice-weekly garden classes at the KUA’s on-site garden. In addition to picking and planting, kids learn about cycles and seasons, saving seeds and even identifying insect life while on “bug safari.”

“We have been harvesting lots of zucchini, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers; fresh herbs, corn, kale; and have been enjoying the blackberries, strawberries, plums and grapes,” said Alyssa Buswell, KUA garden educator and coordinator.

“We have made several delicious meals already, including zucchini with butter and Parmesan, tomato-cucumber-herb salad and have taste-tested lemon cucumbers versus slicing cucumbers.”

A different fresh fruit or vegetable is featured in each month’s KUA cafeteria tastings — tomatoes in September, followed by apples in October. Students sample a recipe made with produce from a local farm and delve into the “harvest of the month” food in KUA’s garden classes, said Buswell.

“They have had introductions to plant needs — cool weather versus warm weather crops — and will continue to work hard to create and enjoy a fall garden,” said Buswell. “We have started planting seeds for our fall garden, including beets, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, bok choy and more basil.

“Fall is a great time to learn about cycles and seasons.”

Celebrity chef gives rave review of KU culinary program

A Haitian celebrity chef inspired Kids Unlimited culinary students while preparing the organization’s annual benefit banquet.

Celebrity chef Ron Duprat was an honored guest at KU’s 25th anniversary fundraising gala and auction. But the chef honored kids working alongside him — and the KU food program — as they all pitched in to create a memorable meal. Chef Duprat praised KU students’ impressive skills and the organization’s commitment to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner — prepared daily from scratch — to every student.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity for the kids, and a big, big opportunity for myself,” said Chef Duprat, who is affiliated with No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit coalition to end childhood hunger and poverty. 

Among the students who assisted Chef Duprat were eighth grader Andre Alcocer, who took first place in Kids Unlimited Academy’s third annual “Iron Chef” competition with teammate Alexis Williams, a sixth grader. The duo prepared steak tartare, a French dish of finely chopped raw meat, topped with a raw quail egg yolk. Alcocer said he craved the beef dish since hearing about it from his older sister, who attended culinary school in Austin.

Also working in Texas, Chef Duprat mingled his signature Afro-Caribbean flavors with locally produced specialties for the gala menu. Medford’s Fry Family Farm donated its organic mixed greens for the salad course, topped with fresh strawberries, candied walnuts and blue cheese provided by Rogue Creamery in Central Point. Guests sipped Red Lily wines. 

Recognized among the most influential Black chefs, Duprat has cooked for Usher, Beyonce and Jay-Z and President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. A contributor to Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, Chef Duprat has supported World Central Kitchen, Black Culinarian Alliance and other nonprofit causes.

Chef Duprat has been a top competitor on Bravo TV and Food Network cooking contests. He has appeared on “The View,” “The Today Show” and “Access Hollywood” and in Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Ebony, Oprah, Essence and other magazines.

From our CEO

Humbled, grateful and proud. Commemorating our 25th anniversary is monumental, and it is a true blessing to have the opportunity to step back and reflect on the journey that has made Kids Unlimited what it is over the past quarter century.

The question I’m constantly asked is: “Did you ever think … (insert one of KU’s countless achievements) would happen?” The answer is always: “Never.”

Since the beginning, I’ve embraced our mission to be a shared journey with those we call our Kids Unlimited family. Over the years, that work has involved thousands of kids and families and the celebration of many “firsts.” Today, it’s incredible to see the generational impact our work has made on transforming our kids, their families and our entire community.

Our story is an unbelievable tale of growth since Kids Unlimited’s inception in 1998 as a grassroots afterschool program with 50 participants. It’s a tale of perseverance and validation of the hope possible when our heroes — volunteers, staff, parents and donors — come together to ensure the Unlimited is possible.

I can’t begin to describe all that the past 25 years of work have meant to me without smiling, laughing and shedding some tears. It’s been inspiring to see what our work could mean to changing the lives of our kids and forever changing the norms of our Southern Oregon community.

— Tom Cole, KU founder and CEO