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On the ropes

Irvington team mixes hops and skips with discipline and community
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Kenyon O’Rourke (left) and Lillia Davenport throw a ball to each other while jumping rope. Irvington PE teacher Karen Barker (holding the ropes) coaches 89 kids on the school’s jump-rope team. Below, Barker shows seventh-grader Torrey Robinson how 
to do a trick.

Twice a week, kids pack the gymnasium at Irvington School, jump-ropes in hand. But their instructor, Karen Barker, isn’t playing around. “I don’t deal with the attitude,” she announced at a recent practice, although she didn’t seem to be getting much from her students. “Bench!” she barks at one point, and kids instantly take a seat. Skipping rope may be kids’ stuff, but in Barker’s firm hands it’s been fashioned into a important instrument at the Northeast Portland school, a tool that builds bodies, teaches responsibility and instills pride in students. Twenty-eight years after starting a similar program at Woodlawn Elementary, Barker has 89 kids on her Irvington Jump Rope Team, not to mention the 62 others involved in a twice-weekly tumbling class before school. Throw in the couple dozen kids who have had to give up jumping rope due to scheduling conflicts, and Barker, the K-7 school’s physical education teacher, has been head coach of more than one-third of the student body. “She’s an amazing person,” says Cathy Percich, a fourth-grade teacher who’s been at Irvington for more than 20 years. “She doesn’t get paid to come to school at 7 in the morning twice a week (for tumbling practice).” Members of the jump-rope team, which performs at halftime of local high school basketball games and at two gala year-end shows at Irvington, must make a formal commitment. “They have a contract in order to be on the team,” Percich says. “It says they’re going to be in school on time, they’re following school rules, they’re getting their homework in. “There is such leadership and responsibility and confidence that they gain from this. Here’s a place where they can be successful. There are high expectations for the team.” And Barker, a 55-year-old grandmother of two whose idea of fun is being a competitive bodybuilder in her free time, makes sure those expectations are met. “I’ll tell them the easy part is having the skills,” she says. “The hard part is disciplining yourself. If you’re not here to work, don’t come. I’m not here to baby-sit.” Students hop to it Team practices are not a low-stress affair, with spring-loaded kids and a powerful sound system generating an earsplitting din. The only supervision comes from Barker and a volunteer assistant, yet there’s very little goofing off going on. When Barker abruptly kills the music — mostly current favorites like Fergie, Soulja Boy and Justin Timberlake — the place goes dead quiet. “You guys are not listening,” Barker shouts, her face a stern mask. “Many of you aren’t thinking what step is ahead of you,” she explains, her index fingers to her temples. “I want you thinking.” “She is like that a lot of the time,” says Steve Zich, a 40-year-old Portland computer programmer who has two kids in Barker’s program. “But she’s serious in a good way. They all behave.” At the end of the session, Barker puts the kids through a whole-squad routine that requires precision as waves of jumpers spring into action to successive musical cues. She demands that anyone who slips up — even a little — immediately sit down, dropping out of the routine. Two surprising things happen. First, an ironclad honor system becomes evident. Even jumpers whose infractions are minor or whose mistakes might not have been spotted drop quickly to the floor. And it takes a long time to eliminate the kids. Because they’re good. At the end of the routine, a hearty cheer goes up from onlookers, whose ranks have swelled as parents arrive to collect their kids. “One of the nice things about this program is that it encompasses all the grades, and all the kids are involved,” Zich says. “It ties the whole school together. It’s because of the work Karen does that kind of brings us in. It’s encouraged the community to come together and do things that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.” Percich says Barker and the jump rope team are a point of pride at Irvington, part of the school’s identity. When talking to teachers from other schools, she says, “All we ever do is brag about her. We’re like, ‘You should see what we have. You should see some of those kids that have been doing it since kindergarten.’ “They’re usually jealous.” Jumping’s ‘serious business’ Cynthia MacLeod, Irvington’s principal for six years, is a big fan of the jump-rope program. “It gives children a chance to set personal goals around what they want to accomplish,” she says. “It can translate into academic achievement, because kids feel better about themselves. “When it comes time to sign contracts, it means a lot to them that they have that opportunity to be on the team. They like the notion of being responsible for something important.” Barker’s own notions about responsibility seem of another era, a time when a coach’s commands were, well, commanding. Back then, the fear was not that a little rough handling would cause children to falter, but that they would falter without it. A cheerleader when she was at Beaverton’s Sunset High School, Barker is married to a former Portland motorcycle cop who rose to the rank of general in the Oregon National Guard. Her son is a Border Patrol agent in New Mexico. “I believe in listening to kids and hearing what they have to say, but when it comes time to directions and listening in class, playtime’s over,” she says. “It comes from raising kids. I believe that you gain respect from children. And they respect you if you respect them.” MacLeod knows what turns Barker’s powerful motor. “Karen knows that if she treats it like it’s serious business, the kids will treat it like serious business,” she says. “On the flip side, Karen is a very compassionate person. She’s driven by her passion for kids and the desire to make a difference in kid’s lives.” Barker and others says the jump-rope and tumbling programs she created must be seen in the context of the new realities of public elementary and middle school education in Portland. Unlike previous generations, today’s kids have no access to school-sponsored team sports, which were once available year-round. “Not only do we not have the level of extracurricular things connected to school, not everybody is good at soccer and basketball,” MacLeod says. “This is for kids that are not necessarily athletic. It’s a different kind of athleticism. We’re trying to really broaden that notion of what it means to be athletic. It’s all about kids having the opportunity to express themselves.” Twelve-year-old Tyler Russell and his friend Torrey Robinson, 13, are among five boys on the jump-rope team. The two thought they’d try something different when they signed on. They learned that the sport required a surprising degree of athleticism. And that had its benefits. “When I get fit in the summer,” Tyler says, “the girls are gonna like me.” Barker, who lives in Raleigh Hills, says it’s no accident that she ended up at ethnically mixed schools like Woodlawn and Irvington, where students represent a broad spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. It is in that setting, she feels, that she can do the most for her kids. “I grew up in a lily-white neighborhood,” she says. “I like the diversity. I take it child by child. If they have nothing else going on in their life, they have more chances. “I know a girl who’s a senior at Grant this year who went through my tumbling program. She writes me a letter every year thanking me for developing a sense of discipline. She’s became more organized because I held her accountable.” Barker says she’s contemplating retirement but isn’t certain when she’ll be able to walk away from the work — and the kids — she’s been shaping for nearly three decades. “I have a hard time saying no,” she says. “It’s just something I’m going to have to deal with. I still absolutely look forward to coming to work every day. “When they put their uniform on and they march into another school and I don’t have to tell them to be quiet, the pride shows on their faces. That’s why I do it.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.