Night High School helps out kids on a quest for knowledge

Along a hallway the length of a football field is the Grant High School pantheon: fresh faces of young athletes, cheerleaders and prom queens beaming from framed photographs.

Even in the quiet of evening, you can almost hear the papery swish of pom-poms and teenage feet pounding the bleachers as part of a frenzied taunt: We've got spirit, yes, we do. We've got spirit, how 'bout you?

But downstairs, in a remote corner of the Northeast Portland school, is another world, a sort of parallel high school universe. It's called Portland Night High School.

There, 19-year-old Evelyn Solares looks for her chance to shout out a verb or an adjective as teacher Chris Shanley prompts. If she's at all distracted, the issue is not boys, or clothes or stuff like that. More likely, she's thinking about her daughter.

For while Solares has a job and a husband and a 1 1/2-year-old child, she's also determined to get a diploma.

'I wanted to finish high school because my parents really wanted that,' she says.

Created in 1973, Portland Night High School offers a route to graduation for kids who might not otherwise finish high school. Part of the Portland Public Schools system, it is available to individuals between the ages of 16 and 21 who work days, care for other family members or simply never found their stride amid the clamor and pressures of what PNHS people call 'day school.'

Solares, a pretty bottle-blonde who favors dark eyeliner, is grateful for the opportunity.

'It's nice that I have a baby, because she changed me in a lot of ways,' she says. 'I want to work because I want to have a career. I'm doing it for myself and my daughter.'

At her side is husband David Garcia, also 19. Between work and fatherhood, his plan to graduate from Franklin High School in Southeast Portland came off the tracks, so he decided to join his wife at Night High. He didn't want to settle for a GED.

'I'm probably going to go on to college,' he says.

'He could get two jobs, but I didn't want him to do that,' Solares says.

'The typical student who comes to us has opted out of the regular day school situation for any number of reasons,' says teacher Al Rowell, a 17-year Portland Public Schools veteran and one of five full-time teachers at Night High.

'They're seeking an alternative that will allow them to pursue a parenting situation, a work situation or perhaps a family support situation without having to fit into the rigid structure of day school.

'It's more common than you'd expect,' Rowell says. 'A lot of them are thrust into a great deal of responsibility at an early age. It can cause major difficulties with their education. We can offer an opportunity for that student.'

Says teacher Joel Shapiro: 'They're trying to reconnect with their education. Unless those students can start accessing education and training beyond high school, the cycle that brought them to our school in the first place is hard to break.'

'One size doesn't fit all,' says Dave Mesirow, director of the school from 1985 to 1998. 'What we do is equivalent to what emergency rooms at hospitals do. These are kids that get left for dead.

'They go into the work force and say: 'Wait a minute, I need more education. Where am I gonna get it?' This is resurrection for a number of kids who would not have made it to real citizenship where they get a job and they're paying taxes.'

Same expectations

According to Portland Public Schools, roughly 70 percent of Night High students work from 20 to 40 hours a week. Fifteen percent are parents. The school follows the same calendar year as other schools but meets four times a week in the evening.

'We're not any different than the day school,' says Director Charlene Turenne. 'We're not a watered-down curriculum. We have high-achieving kids. Last year we had a young man who was taking advanced calculus at the University of Portland. Our school is not set up to accommodate kids who can't get out of the bed in the morning.'

Shapiro says: 'I think there's been a general movement to be much more academic. It's not uncommon for students to graduate and go on to college. It was a real exception 15 years ago.'

Basic courses allow for the fulfillment of credit requirements, but electives and self-directed curriculum also are available, and credit is earned for off-campus experiences. Because of open enrollment, classes at Night High are like self-contained units, tailored to accommodate students who may begin at any time or accumulate credit over an extended period.

'It may take you more time to reach your goal,' Turenne says, 'but you're never behind here.'

They want diplomas

The school offers general equivalency diploma instruction and testing, but most students earn actual high school diplomas. That diploma, says recent graduate Emily Grigsby, 'doesn't say 'the basement.' '

The 19-year-old Grigsby, who has the composure of someone years older, could be a poster child for the school.

'I came here with seven credits last year,' she says, 'a little bit less than 1 1/2 school years.'

She had enrolled at Grant as a freshman, but a strained relationship with her mother prompted her to move in with her father the following year, transferring to Cleveland High. She began working in a restaurant and became increasingly disenchanted with the high school curriculum. At one point, she moved to Colorado with her boyfriend.

'I wasn't really challenged in any of my classes,' she says. 'The only class I really went to was photography.'

She returned to Portland and re-enrolled at Grant, but despite an adequate academic performance, was often absent from class.

Rowell says strict limits on absences can leave students empty-handed despite their efforts. 'The end result is that on their report card, they get zero credit. There's no recognition given.'

Determined to continue her education, Grigsby enrolled at Night High, where she found that smaller class sizes and the heightened attention she received from teachers provided something she had been missing.

At a standard high school, she says, 'There's nobody that says, 'Let me help you do that.'

'(At Night High) there were people every day saying, 'So when are you gonna take your SATs?' It's a different kind of pressure.'

Rowell concurs. 'We have more of an intimate environment. I'm now involved much more completely in the lives and the development of my students in a way I could not do in the conventional program.'

When students gathered in a classroom for an informal holiday send-off and awards ceremony last month, Grigsby received her diploma. She hugged her teachers in turn while her classmates applauded energetically.

She is convinced her diploma has made the necessary impression on prospective colleges, perhaps more so than a conventional sheepskin. 'It was an advantage for me,' she says. 'They went, 'Oh, OK, so you know how to think outside the box.' '

Grigsby plans to take classes at Portland Community College before transferring to a local university, where she will study nursing.

'She's an overachiever,' says director Turenne. 'She was motivated.'

Look for the spark

Turenne, who has worked in the Portland school system for nearly 20 years, is in her third year as director of Night High.

'It just makes so much sense the way this program is set up,' she says. 'It's not cookie cutter. We have students that come here and they have gaps in their learning, and they feel like they're failures. And they're not. Kids can't help if their families have problems.

'We look for what's right with the kids, and we work from there. What is the spark in every kid? We build on their strengths.'

Turenne says PNHS operates with modest funding, most of which pays the salaries of an eight-person staff. 'If you looked at how much money the Night High School gets, it is extremely small. We do not have a library. We do not have a counselor. As teachers, we do everything. We clean the rooms at night. We're nickels and dimes here.'

Volunteers, grant money and partnerships with outside organizations sustain the enterprise. Students have worked with local professional actors in the long-running Haven Project, worked out with Marine Corps officers, and learned from area writers and musicians.

'We get to be a little more innovative,' Turenne says. 'As an alternative high school we have more academic freedom.'

The imaginative curriculum and mentoring capture the imagination of students, sometimes for the first time, Turenne says.

'A lot of kids come here, they have no idea what their reading, writing and math skills are. When kids come to trust you, they open the door a little bit. It is amazing the stories they have and what they've been through Ñ they still have a joy for life, and they still want to learn. They realize the importance of an education.'

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