Breaking Ground On A New Kind Of Middle School

By Rob Manning
Nov. 4, 2015

A new school breaks ground Thursday on the Portland-Gresham border, bringing Oregon dignitaries, like Gov. Kate Brown. There are high hopes it will rescue hundreds of students who are struggling in school.

Where there’s now an old garden supply shop, the non-profit Open School East intends to build a facility for up to 270 struggling middle and high schoolers.

Open School director Andrew Mason said the plan is to combine efforts with a new Boys and Girls Club.

“The Boys and Girls clubs operate after school. We operate during school. So you’ve got a neighborhood that has issues with safety right now, and kids have a seamless transition from before and after-school activities,” Mason said, at the school’s future site.

The Boys and Girls Club expects to break ground next spring on a 30,000 square foot building, with a $9 million price tag.

The school will be 22,000 square feet, and cost almost $8 million.

It’s a big expansion from where Open School East has been since 2014. It’s squeezed into four classrooms at Harold Oliver Elementary School, in East Portland’s Centennial School District.

As the day starts, Open School East principal Elizabeth Jensen walks into an eighth grade class.

“So, kids trickle in from all different districts…” Jensen explained before stopping herself. “Hey Abdul — can you spit that out?”

“Thank you,” Jensen said with a smile. “You knew you were busted.”

Abdul spits out his gum, and a minute later, he’s helping lead the class through the call-and-response reading of a Mayan poem, called “In Lak’ech.”

Right now, 76 students come from across Multnomah County, bringing academic struggles, behavior problems, and poor attendance — in search of something better.

Many are students of color, from low-income backgrounds, like 12 year-old Rayanna Grant. She’d struggled at her old middle school.

“I was always the youngest, but the tallest in my class — people would be like ‘why are you so tall?’ or ‘you’re just a giant’ or something like that,” Rayanna said. “(That) would hurt me. But I got suspended because people would want to talk about me, or fight — but I would never want to, until they would hit me.

“Do we really want to, with our high schools, continue to just let them drop out — where it’s disproportionately kids of color, disproportionately low-income kids?” Mason asked. “Or, if we know who they are, isn’t there a way where we can use this research and intervene at sixth grade?”

Open School and school district officials use these “predictive analytics” to identify sixth grade students at risk for dropping out: kids with high absence rates, poor test scores, low grades or suspensions.

“The innovation here is where the districts come together and say ‘we want you to proactively go out and identify kids,’” Mason said.

“I don’t think that there was any secret academic recipe,” said principal Jensen.

She said the school day runs until almost 4:30 p.m.; class size is capped at 24 — the things everyone says make a difference.

At Open School, some students gain five grade levels in reading and math in a year.

“I think they finally believed that the content had relevance to them, that they could access it, and that they were capable. And so we got those results,” Jensen concluded.

Rayanna Grant is now in seventh grade at Open School.

“I got suspended for saying something or doing something because someone was trying to bring me down,” she said.

Suspensions and expulsions are an early indicator of students who may later dropout. Schools have keyed on that, as students head into ninth grade. Mason has worked on high school programs for years — but he said sometimes, high school is too late.

“All my life, I’ve like, loved school, so I hate being home and not at school,” Rayanna said. “So, for me to fail, I would hate it, because if I love school so much and I would fail, it would just hurt me. So that’s why I’ve been trying to keep all A’s, which I’ve been doing, so far, just A and B.”

At Open School, students hold each other accountable, through the “responsibility process.”

Rayanna demonstrates with classmate Jazmine Reyes, who pretends she lost focus in class.

Rayanna: “Who do you need to clean it up with?”
Jazmine: “My teacher.”
Rayanna: “Your teacher and who else?”
Jazmine: “Hmm?”
Rayanna: “Like who else — it’s not just your teacher.”
Jazmine: “And my class.”
Rayanna: “What will you do differently next time?”
Jazmine: “I will own my learning and pay attention in class.”

Even when the new 22,000-square-foot building is finished, Open School East will be small.

In some ways, it may be too small. The east county school districts have more students who fit the criteria – some combination of chronic absence, lagging academic performance, and behavior issues – than the school can fit.

The David Douglas School District is limited by contract to sending only 15 students per grade level to Open School. But officials say four times that many students who could go, if there were more room. Open School will grow in its new home – by adding grades, not by making those grades larger.

The school is attempting to extend its reach in two ways: by keeping its students all the way through 12th grade, rather than returning them to local high schools.

And by working with University of Portland to spread the school’s equity principles to up-and-coming teachers, as they head to classrooms throughout Oregon.