Through decades of turmoil and change at Jefferson High School, the Jefferson Dancers have survived and are thriving this year as they mark their 35th anniversary.

The elite dance troupe is fresh off an 11-day performance tour of Italy in late March, and gearing up for their biggest fundraiser of the year.

Their annual Portland concert series at the Newmark Theatre, a tradition since 1988, is set for May 4 to 7.

Artistic Director Steve Gonzales says the dance program is strong, and looks like it might benefit from Jefferson High School's transformation into the Jefferson Middle College for Advanced Studies this fall.

'Jefferson's in need of some change,' he says. 'I think we're moving in the right direction. That's what held some of my dancers from coming here full-time - a lack of AP classes' and other challenging academics.

In recent years, as few as three Jefferson Dancers had actually been full-time Jefferson students.

That prompted district officials to consider mandating that the dancers be full-time Jefferson students, in order to boost enrollment at the struggling school.

The mandate was put on hold, and Gonzales says he recently requested that the district leaders continue to hold off, to see what shakes out with the school improvements instead.

This year, seven of the 22 dancers are full-time Jefferson students.

And already, Gonzales says, some of his dancers from other schools and districts are planning to enroll in the Middle College.

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In other Jefferson news, the school is in the midst of searching for a new principal to start next fall, as the Middle College program rolls out.

Toni Hunter, a district deputy superintendent, has served as interim principal since Principal Cynthia Harris took a leave after questions of financial mismanagement at the school arose. She remains on unpaid leave.

The principal search process is also getting underway at North Portland's Benson Polytechnic High School, where faculty and staff are set to meet with district officials Thursday evening to kickstart the process.

Benson Principal Steve Olczak is set to retire this year after stepping in midyear for former Principal Christie Plinski three years ago as interim leader.

Benson teacher John Slaughter says the school community - already bracing for major cuts and structural change this fall - is hoping for a new principal who embraces the school's career technical education mission.

'We don't want to be set up to fail,' he says. 'We just want a fair process.'

Other district schools that will hire new principals this year include: George Middle School, the Creative Science School at Clark, Irvington K-8, Maplewood Elementary, Metropolitan Learning Center, Roseway Heights K-8 and Sunnyside Environmental School.

The process at each school will start with a public meeting to discuss what each community wants. A selection committee including parents, community members and school staff will interview candidates and be asked for feedback on each applicant. District leaders hope to hire the principals before school starts in the fall.

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