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Portland Program Saves a High School From Closing, Then Helps its Graduation Rate Soar

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SEI coordinator Sarah Lawrence high fives with Jefferson High School junior Bequi Felipe Miguel.

By Rob Waters

In 2010, Jefferson High School, the only predominantly African-American high school in Portland, Oregon, was on the chopping block. The neighborhood it served had been through gang wars, drive-by shootings and gentrification. The school had been redesigned and reconstituted, broken into small schools and reunified in waves of top-down school-reform efforts. Yet its graduation rate hovered around 50 percent.

As the school district looked for budget cuts and neighbors complained about gangs, the school board took steps to close Jefferson. Then “the hell-no brigade,” as Lisa Saunders calls it, got busy. “We rented buses, brought 500 people to a board meeting,” she says. Leading the fight was the youth-development agency Saunders worked for, Self Enhancement Inc., or SEI.

SEI and its founder, Tony Hopson, Sr., have a knack for turning negatives into positives. It started in 1981 when Hopson, a Jefferson High graduate and basketball player, started a basketball camp as a way to use the sport to help youth get ready for life and off-the-court careers. Then, in 1986, tragedy struck. A gang-related drive-by shooting killed a 17-year-old and injured two others. The shooting shocked the city but gave SEI an opportunity to move beyond basketball.

“We got the chance to get into the school system and develop our service-delivery system to high-risk kids,” Hopson told me. “The model was wrap-around services.”

Starting in 1988, the agency placed coordinators at Jefferson and three middle schools to act as case managers and work with kids in all facets of their lives, supporting them around academic, social and family issues. The program was effective—but only for the 20 percent or so of Jefferson students who were part of it.

When SEI rallied its supporters in June 2010, they convinced the school board to keep Jefferson open and to give SEI enough funding to implement a “whole-school model and work with every student instead of just a fraction. Hopson made this commitment: “Give us the money and in four years, we’ll take the 50 percent graduation rate to 80 percent.”

The district agreed and starting the next fall, every 9th grader entering the school entered the SEI program. “The basic theory of action was look inside the building, see what’s working, and offer it to all students,” Principal Margaret Calvert told me. The students involved with SEI “had higher graduation rates, higher college-going rates and higher college-completion rates than the student population overall.”

By the start of the 2013-2014 school year, all students at every grade level had been assigned to an SEI student coordinator, who got to know each student and their needs, offering a mix of kindness, support and tough love. Other coordinators worked with parents to make sure students’ needs were met and to help families facing crises like evictions, hunger or family violence.

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SEI staff and students at their daily “Gym Talk” meeting.

Calvert welcomed the partnership with SEI, granting its staff complete access to the school. The school also expanded its partnership with nearby Portland Community College so all upper-class students could take advanced academic classes or classes that could enhance careers such as accounting, engineering, or electrical.

The partnership with SEI had another benefit: Many parents and families didn’t trust the school district but they did trust SEI, which had deep roots in the community. As school officials and SEI leaders did outreach—“we went everywhere and talked to everyone,” Calvert said—some of that trust transferred to the school.

By the end of the 2014-2015 school year—one year later than Hopson promised—Jefferson’s graduation rate had rocketed to 80 percent. Among students who’d been part of SEI since middle school, the graduation rate was 92 percent.

I visited Jefferson High in early April and was met at the door by Sarah Lawrence, a class of 2000 Jefferson High graduate and SEI staff member who got involved with SEI in 4th grade. She works with juniors but seems to know every student we encounter in the hall.

“Are you Tasla’s niece?” she says to one girl. “You want to do some cheerleading?” she says to another. “I’m the cheerleading coordinator.” Another girl stops to talk and Lawrence passes on information about donated prom dresses she has obtained for students who can’t afford them. “Do you need me to text you a reminder?” she asks.

She accompanies Findi Jermany, a new SEI staffer she’s helping train, to the school office. They rifle through binders, looking for clues about one student who hasn’t appeared in 10 days after previously earning good grades. The missing student is Latino—like 13 percent of Jefferson students—so Lawrence and Jermany approach Raul Velasquez, an SEI staffer who works with Latino families. He thinks the student moved to another school but says he’ll call the family to check.

We walk to the converted classroom that serves as an office for Lawrence and three other coordinators. Photos of their students hang on the walls around each desk. Each coordinator carries a caseload of 25 to 50 students and acts as a case manager, trying to make sure their kids stay on top of their work and have food, clothing, shelter, safety—and love. In keeping with SEI’s philosophy, coordinators serve as mentor, teacher and sometimes parent.

“We’re in their lives, in their business and in their face,” Lawrence tells me. “Some kids, I just call their parents and they get on board. But I don’t have a lot like that. Other kids, I have to be their parent. But I can’t act like a parent unless I have a relationship. Don’t think you’re going to tell a teenager what to do if you don’t have that.”

SEI staff is trained “to put your last name on every kid,” Hopson told me. “You do everything for these kids you would do for your own son or daughter.” Every kid has their coordinator’s cell phone number and is told to contact them at any time if they need help. When problems including violence occur, SEI staffers are often the first to know.

Lawrence remembers what it’s like to have SEI in her business. When she was in high school, she got a “little boy crazy” and started seeking “negative attention” in the way she dressed. Her coordinator offered to take her shopping.

“He didn’t say, ‘I hate all your clothes, you’re seeking attention you don’t really want,’” Lawrence recalls. “He did it in a tasteful way. That showed me that someone cared. He wanted guys to give me attention for being smart and interesting rather than what I was showing.”

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SEI coordinator Sarah Lawrence confers with Jefferson High School junior DeAuj’Zhane Coley.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Lawrence worked part-time for SEI but program managers refused to hire her fulltime because she’d been interested in going to medical school and they wanted her to follow up. It took years for her to convince them she really wanted to work with kids in the same program that had helped her.

Third period ends and Bequi Felipe Miguel, a junior, comes in. Lawrence motions her over and taps on her laptop. “What will these grades be like before I look at them?” Lawrence asks. “They should be fine,” Bequi responds. Lawrence looks at Bequi’s transcript, making a note to be sure that a dance class the girl took is applied to her PE requirement.

Bequi tells me her parents, Guatemalan immigrants, work long hours, leaving her to take care of her younger siblings, ages 11 and 6. “I have to cook and make sure they do their homework,” she says. She plans to graduate, go to community college and nursing school. She credits Lawrence and SEI for helping her manage her stress and workload. She “never gets tired” of Lawrence questioning and pushing her, she says. “Honestly, I’d be lost” without it, she adds.

DeAuj’Zhane Coley, a junior, comes in to eat lunch at a table in the center of the room. She’s just come from a presentation down the hall by students and staff from Oregon Health Sciences University about the experience of going to a medical school and research institution. She’s a young woman with big goals.

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“I want to graduate from medical school, become a doctor and build a clinic to serve people who are underserved,” DeAuj’Zhane tells me. Right now, she says, she’s involved “in a million things.” She has a 3.9 GPA, is the junior class representative to student government, a member of a council that meets with the school board, a cheerleading captain and a leader of the biotech club and a teen pregnancy-prevention program. “I don’t know how I manage to get my homework done,” she says.

In June, she’ll go to Boston to attend a conference of future medical leaders, with the support of a scholarship SEI helped her get. “I’ll get to tour Harvard,” she adds.

Lawrence, who once had ambitions of going to medical school, slips into the role of proud mother. “I’m living vicariously through her,” she says. “But I’m worried about her overextending herself. I want her to enjoy being a kid.”

Hopson says SEI is there to help all the youth, including high achieving, self-motivated kids like DeAuj’Zhane. But some kids struggle more, have families in crisis, or have experienced trauma, and need the most “touches” and personal contact from the adults on staff, he says.

For Principal Calvert, the experience of developing partnerships and leading a transition has been complex, but the recipe for success deceptively simple: “When students are surrounded by adults who believe in them and are forward-looking and thinking about where the students are going, kids start to develop plans,” she says. “The plans become detailed—this is what I want, this is this is how I’m going to do it. It’s not pie-in-the-sky. There are dreams that have action plans behind them.”

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