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Promise of Jefferson

• Today's Demos aim to topple demons of school's past
by: JIM CLARK, Mayor Tom Potter (right) chatted with chief of staff Austin Raglione in a Jefferson hallway Monday, the first day of City Hall’s weeklong visit to the school.

Don't get Shei'Meka Newmann wrong. She loved the fact that Jefferson High School was gushing with pride and positivity this week.

Led by Portland Mayor Tom Potter, hundreds of city, county and school leaders; community members; and alumni made an unprecedented show of support for the students over the past few days by watching them perform, visiting their classes, engaging them in city affairs, and - most important - hearing them speak.

But Newmann, a dynamic 30-year-old who graduated from Benson High but found herself mentoring kids at Jefferson in 2001, is a realist.

'So what happens when the smoke clears?' she says. 'Yeah - rah, rah, rah. But are you going to step up and do anything? Are you really going to make any changes?'

To Jefferson outsiders, that question might sound insane. Changes? That's all Jefferson's experienced in the past decade, from its teacher reconstitution in 1998 to its parade of new principals, policies and academy designs.

Now Jefferson has a stable principal, Cynthia Harris, who's helped instill a new pride in the school from the inside and out.

'Today, it's finally our time to shine,' elated senior class President Celeste Jackson told the crowd at a Monday morning assembly straight out of a scene from the classic inner-city school-rising film 'Lean on Me.'

With more community support, Jackson continued, enrollment will climb, programs and other resources will be restored, test scores and graduation rates will rise, and Jefferson will no longer be a school in jeopardy.

Students want a commitment

But after the TV cameras and reporters and dignitaries are gone - Potter will deliver his State of the City address from Jefferson just after noon today - what happens then?

What will Portland school leaders and community members do now, after hearing students plead, loud and clear, for some art and music courses, at least a few college-prep courses, more rigor in their everyday classes and more than just one foreign language offering?

'They're looking at their peers at any of the other high schools and, for the most part, they're offered the least,' said Newmann, who grew up down the street from the North Portland campus.

'I fell in love with the kids,' she said, noting that she's considered going into youth ministry but feels she can do more by assisting in their education.

On her long lunch breaks from Wieden and Kennedy, she now runs the school's 'Lunch Jones' program, which began in the wake of protests last year over the closed-campus lunch policy.

Despite some talk about letting seniors go off-campus for lunch this year, it hasn't happened yet, so everyone must stay in the building.

But food isn't the only topic of conversation. About 50 or so kids gather each Tuesday in the school's new 'CommUnity' room in the basement, which has been equipped with a kitchenette, plenty of seating and even toys for children as an open space for families, volunteers and anyone who wants to come in and claim some space.

Over Popeyes chicken or another family-style lunch Newmann buys out of her own pocket, she gets the students to begin their discussions by asking, 'If the whole community was listening, what would you want to say?'

Lately, they've been venting about how some of their teachers have foreign accents so thick they can't really understand them. Or how after a particular math teacher who they thought was ineffective left the school at the beginning of the year, they haven't seen a permanent teacher hired in his place.

They've had at least three different substitutes, a situation they say makes it difficult to learn. 'Every new teacher's bringing out a new strategy,' senior Grace Muange says.

The current substitute, who's been on since Thanksgiving, is 'a great teacher, but make him our permanent teacher so it's not a burden on us,' said Jackson, the senior class president.

Opening had few applicants

Harris said the current substitute can't be hired permanently because of his contract, but a new, permanent teacher is expected to be hired shortly.

In the meantime, a Beaverton software engineer looking to become a math teacher has volunteered to tutor students struggling in math at Jefferson.

The delay in hiring a permanent teacher for the post was because of a shortage in the pool of available candidates, Harris said.

'I know people here don't like it, but we might have to rethink combat pay,' she said, referring to the controversial strategy of giving bonuses to teachers who work in schools in poorer areas. 'It's not the same, working here.' The Portland Association of Teachers has opposed the idea.

Harris also said five teachers will seek their Advanced Placement training this summer, other teacher training is in the works, and there's already a partnership in place to get a school band started.

The school board also is looking at merging two of Jefferson's four academies, which would allow more access to electives.

So what now?

School district administrators promise accountability, but not overnight.

'We've got to deliver on instruction,' said Leslie Rennie-Hill, who oversees the district's Office of High Schools and had a daughter graduate from Jefferson in 1998 and go on to New York University to study dance. 'We've got to make sure they're getting the challenges and opportunities they need.'