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ACMA celebrates two decades of creative academia


School faculty reflects on struggles in shaping lauded magnet academy

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Judy Chown, left, and Mary Boger, go through old articles and photos in the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy's archives as they search for material to put on the memory board for the school's upcoming 20th anniversary celebration on Sunday.   Mary Boger remembers the lean, early days at the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. That’s why she has to practically pinch herself at the idea of celebrating the school’s 20th anniversary.

“From the very beginning, it was very questionable whether there was going to be a school the next year,” said Boger, the former principal’s secretary when ACMA launched in 1993. “From that first year, I’d say it was an impossible dream.”

It took nearly 10 years of passionate lobbying from teachers, founding principal Paula Kinney, students and teachers before ACMA found itself on solid financial and philosophical ground within the Beaverton School District.

“Every year was a struggle up to that point,” Boger said. “The teachers fought hard for this school.”

The fight appears to have paid off. From an enrollment of less than 200 in the school’s first year as a high school, the now combined middle and high school has around 700 students. A combined lottery and interest-based interview process determines which arts-inclined students in the district will attend ACMA, located at 11375 S.W. Center St.

“We would be bigger if we had the capacity,” said Michael Johnson, ACMA’s principal since 2004. “We are just bulging at the seams.”

The public is welcome to help celebrate the school’s triumph over the course of 20 years on Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. The celebration will include student-led tours of the old and new facilities, a dessert and coffee “mingle time” featuring performances by student musical combos and a program of performances by current students and alumni on the main stage of the Performing Arts Center from 4 to 5 p.m. Artwork by current students as well as alumni will be on display throughout the center’s foyer.

Kinney, now director at Marylhurst University’s Park Academy in Lake Oswego, will speak of her experiences building ACMA, and Orestes Yambouranis, assistant principal in the school’s formative years, will deliver the keynote address.

Center of achievement

Margaret Fitzgerald, an ACMA school counselor, said the event has generated a definite buzz among past and current students on Facebook and in the community.

“The alumni are very excited about it,” she said. “We don’t normally have reunions. We don’t do homecoming. We don’t have sports teams.”

What ACMA does have is a stellar reputation and record for graduating critically thinking, creatively minded students with high grade point averages who will more than likely go on to college or further educational pursuits. Providing standard academic courses including English, mathematics and science, ACMA lets students pursue career-track passions in areas including music, theater, dance, photography, sculpture and painting.

Johnson touted a recent report from the Oregon University System that showed ACMA graduates outperforming peers at other schools “in every category published.” The results, he offered, are likely influenced by the emphasis of artistic creativity on other areas of learning.

“They’re just really holding their own,” he said. “That’s why the arts are not a frill. You learn how to think, and learn how to think creatively — not just how to get to the right answer, but in fact learn how to formulate the question.”

Building a dream

Passionate, dedicated students aside, keeping the ACMA dream alive, particularly in a district that’s known budget woes well before this fiscal year’s highly unpopular staff slashings, has been at times a shaky proposition.

“Back then, we were just grateful to be employed,” said Judy Chown, a Beaverton School District Magnet School coordinator who retired five years ago. “When we got new furniture, we thought it was a turning point. It was convincing the district that what we were doing here was good or worthy, that was very difficult.”

She credits Kinney’s perseverance and inspiration to the faculty and students with turning ACMA’s vision into a practical reality.

“Paula had tough skin,” Chown said. “She made this happen. She wouldn’t stop. If you didn’t want an appointment with her, she would call again until you did.”

Kinney also fought for ACMA to be recognized as a bona fide creative arts-based academy rather than an “alternative” school for students with special needs.

“She said every student will be prepared for college,” Chown said.

Jon Albertson, an ACMA English teacher from the get-go, said Kinney and the early faculty stood firm in making ACMA a hybrid of arts and high traditional academic standards.

“We wanted to (cultivate) high-demanding academics, but it was going to be different,” he said. “This is an arts school.”

While using a lottery when demand exceeds available spots for interested students presents challenges, Albertson said ACMA continues to fulfill the mission of which the early faculty members dreamed.

“It changed how we do the job,” he said, “but the vision remains.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mary Boger looks through an old album of ACMA photographs taken in the early 1990s, soon after the school's founding.

Principal held ground to get Performing Arts Center

Michael Johnson, Arts & Communication Magnet Academy principal since 2004, recalled a turning point at the school in terms of district cooperation and long-term planning when he took a pass on a less-than inspiring plan for a theater-cafeteria combination to replace the World War II-style quonset hut that served as ACMA’s de facto performance theater.

“I asked Superintendent Jerry Colonna not to build it. That it was not what we need and a waste of the public’s money,” he said. “It was a cafeteria with a stage at the end of it, like you would find in a typical middle school. It didn’t match my vision for the school.”

Colonna agreed with Johnson’s request, and saved the allotted $4 million until more funding came available for a state-of-the-art theater. When voters passed the 2006 bond measure, Johnson and Colonna sat down with faculty and students to plan what became the 400-seat Performing Arts Center.

In addition to providing a fertile training ground for fledgling theater students and performers, the center is a popular auditorium and focal point for events held by a variety of groups and organizations beyond ACMA and the school district.

“When we opened the Performing Arts Center (in 2010), it elevated an already excellent program to a new standard,” Johnson said, noting that ACMA students operate the mechanics of the stage, theater and lighting themselves. “The kids rose up to new expectations. They know how to operate the equipment and how to operate it safely. I take enormous pride in that.”