Overlooked Grout looks for way to grow

Despite drawing kids from wide area, diverse Southeast Portland elementary
by: JIM CLARK, First-grader Corbin Clooten shares a giant paper airplane he made with classmates at Grout Elementary School.

Standing well over 6 feet tall and wearing his signature red apron brightly stamped with students' handprints, 'Teacher Bob' is the kind of educator kids remember long after their time at school.

The itsy-bitsy 5-year-olds in his charge at Southeast Portland's Grout Elementary don't have to crane their necks to see him - he makes sure to get down to their level when leading lessons.

Bob Parker, as he's known outside of class, is famous for teaching the 'Friendship Song' in Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and sign language, and rewarding his students with a Friday afternoon movie after a long week of work.

Parents speak fondly of Parker, who's been at the school since 1988. His wife volunteers her time nearly every day as an aide in his classroom.

'Kids, when they say, 'I don't know,' he says, 'Yeah, but you do,' ' said Aimee Bochsler, who has two children at Grout. 'He doesn't let them give up easily. … You can tell that he loves his job.'

While not known as one of the highest ranked schools, Grout has been a Portland institution since it opened in 1927 as a K-8 school. But now Grout faces an uncertain future.

In the district's ongoing effort to maximize building space and offer the broadest range of programs, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips said she wants each elementary and middle school to serve 400 to 600 students.

That means Grout must increase its population of 330 by about 100 students, since its building capacity is 500. If it does not, it could be a target for future closure or restructuring.

But the Grout community believes the tradition-steeped school serves a unique crosssection of kids. The school library is filled with old photos of each graduating class.

Grout is one of the most diverse schools in Portland, with at least 15 languages spoken. Seventy-three percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches.

An added element this year is the group of 35 students from Somali refugee camps, who just moved to a nearby apartment complex. Having received no formal education before, they'll participate in English as a second language courses, like nearly a third of Grout's student population.

The most recent state report card, released Wednesday, showed Grout rated 'satisfactory' for the 2005-06 school year. The federal 'Adequate Yearly Progress' ratings, released last month, had the school not meeting its benchmarks as it has in the past.

The school missed it by one category, which was reading for English-language learners. Principal Susan McElroy said it was the influx of Somali students a few months into the school year that put them behind.

'We would have made it if we had three more kids meet the benchmark,' she said. 'It's very discouraging because I have awesome teachers who brought these kids so far. … But we have them for the full year this year.'

Capture rate is low

In addition to improving achievement and balancing the needs of the diverse population, McElroy has another challenge: to help Grout grow.

Phillips had given Grout, along with the other half-dozen schools that feed into Cleveland High School, an Oct. 15 deadline to come up with a plan to close one of their buildings.

But parents balked. After much research and collaboration, they came up with a proposal to keep all the buildings open and simply rearrange the attendance boundaries of nearby Llewellyn and Lewis elementary schools, which have the smallest attendance areas.

The Southeast cluster presented its plan to Phillips weeks ago; she may bring that proposal and those from other school clusters throughout the district to the school board for consideration later this month.

But Grout, 3119 S.E. Holgate Blvd., would not be affected by the proposed boundary change. So that leaves the problem: How will it grow? It has a huge attendance area, stretching from the Willamette River on the west to Southeast 39th Avenue on the east, and Southeast Powell Boulevard on the north to Southeast Woodstock Boulevard on the south.

Yet the school captures only 55 percent of the neighborhood students; 27 percent transfer to other neighborhood schools and 13 percent choose focus option schools such as Winterhaven School, a mile away. The others attend charter schools or other special services.

'It would be nice if we got more neighborhood kids to go to Grout,' said Bochsler, 35, who lives two blocks away and serves on the school's site council.

Kindergarten may hold key

McElroy said she doesn't know exactly why more neighborhood kids don't choose Grout, but she suspects it's because parents have so many school choices in the area. She also thinks the availability of full-day kindergarten has a lot to do with it.

Currently, Grout's only full-day kindergarten class is full with 24 students; two half-day classes hold 16 kids each.

When parents hear there aren't more full-day kindergarten slots available, they 'get a panicked look,' McElroy said, and send their child elsewhere. School district leaders plan to expand the full-day program as the budget allows.

Bringing more middle-class families from the neighborhood into Grout would likely increase parent involvement, McElroy said. Currently, most of the working-class parents don't have time to volunteer in the classroom, a noticeable difference from other schools.

'You're not going to see a lot of parents in school,' McElroy said. 'They're all working,' or they don't speak English. But she notes that parents still find ways to show their support, such as at evening events like family fun night.

A lot happens in a day

Even though Grout has fewer students than capacity, McElroy said no space in the building is going unused. Sharing space with the kindergarten classes on the ground floor are parts of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program, run by the nonprofit Portland Impact; Multnomah County's Touchstone program; and the YMCA, which offers day care for students before and after school. The Multnomah Education Service District runs a preschool program at Grout.

The school boasts unique offerings the public doesn't know about, McElroy said. There's the theater program, which has students writing and producing original plays incorporating music, dance and art; a partnership with Reed College students who teach science to fourth- and fifth-graders; and Portland State University-led English-language classes in the evening for parents.

Bochsler loves the fact that her children are enriched by such a diverse environment.

'A lot of people look at the diversity as a negative,' she said. 'I think they really need to look at it more as a positive.'

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