Federal funds guide high school's transformation
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Roosevelt High School Principal Charlene Williams led the school through its first year as a federal "turnaround" school, with $7.7 million in grants for reform. During Tuesday night's commencement ceremony, the school awarded diplomas to 146 of its 170 seniors, for an 85 percent graduation rate — far surpassing previous years.

A year after Roosevelt High School accepted $7.7 million federal school improvement money as a 'turnaround' school, it appears as if the turnaround is working.

The North Portland campus on Tuesday night handed out diplomas to 146 seniors out of a class of 170 - a 85 percent graduation rate on par with the district's other highest achieving schools.

That's up from a 72 percent graduation rate at Roosevelt last year, and much, much lower in prior years.

In fact, Roosevelt's struggles last year earned it the distinction of being the only Portland Public School to be selected for the turnaround money, to be used for three years.

Given a choice of four strictly defined federal models of reform, district leaders chose the 'transformation' model, which involves replacing the principal and improving the school through comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time and other strategies.

Each of Roosevelt's three academies - which are on their way toward phasing out - held its own.

The Pursuit of Wellness Education at Roosevelt (POWER) held steady with its 85 percent graduation rate, the same as last year.

The Arts, Communication and Technology academy shot up from 70 percent last year to 85 percent this year.

And the Spanish-English International School improved the most, spiking from 58 percent last year to 88 percent this year.

Roosevelt was among 12 schools in seven Oregon school districts that had applied and showed eligibility for the funds by having the poorest 5 percent graduation rates, test scores and other low performance benchmarks.

'We still have work to do, and too many students still aren't making it to their senior year, but our graduating seniors let us know what is possible,' Principal Charlene Williams wrote in a recent school bulletin, noting that several more students will be eligible to graduate after taking summer school classes.

People are noticing the success.

Local colleges, businesses and organizations have offered more than $4 million in scholarships to students, Williams says, and local colleges have made 147 offers to Roosevelt students, with many receiving several.

Roosevelt has also benefited from other grants, including a $1.2 million federal GEAR UP grant (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) awarded to seventh-graders headed to Roosevelt in 2005.

The funds - which followed them through graduation this spring - covered mentoring and tutoring, help in applying for college and financial aid, and a chance to visit colleges and job opportunities.

Finally, Roosevelt is part of what the district calls 'the partnership for graduation,' which serves 907 students designated as 'academic priority.' Those at-risk students get more early intervention, prevention and other support to stay on track during their middle and high school years.

Besides Roosevelt, the other schools that participated this year were Marshall High and the nine K-8 and middle schools that feed into those high schools.

Brittany McWilliams, valedictorian at Roosevelt's A.C.T. academy who's now headed for Pacific University, says graduating wasn't an easy task.

'I have spent many tiring hours finishing work and doing everything to the best of my ability,' she wrote in a recent school bulletin. 'There were many times when I felt like giving up and letting go. But I cannot imagine being happy with myself if I did not work as hard as I have.'

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