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by: PHOTO BY MARTIN WINCH - Ameena Amdahl-Mason makes her own face part of her student art projects at New Urban High School. The North Clackamas School Board may decide on March 21 to move the school out of Oak Grove and send it to the Sabin-Schellenberg Career and Technical Center in Clackamas.Walk into New Urban High School and you’ll see a “path to graduation” board game-like poster on the wall, students laughing in the hallways and art — tons of student projects — everywhere, lining most of the walls.

by: PHOTO BY: MARTIN WINCH -  Bayleigh Connors, a current student at New Urban High School, shows off an array of artwork in the hallway of the alternative magnet option for North Clackamas School District residents.You’ve also, just under the surface, entered a war zone where a community is fighting to remain in Oak Grove and retain its independent identity.

Students, alumni and teachers have become just as passionate as supporters of the magnet program at Sojourner Elementary School after the North Clackamas School District proposed moving its programs out of Oak Grove two years ago.

District officials announced on Feb. 28 that relocating New Urban at the Sabin-Schellenberg Career and Technical Center’s South Campus (the part simply known as “Schellenberg”) would save $540,000 during the next school year.

School board members also may decide to close Riverside Elementary on March 21, sending enrollment either to Oak Grove or Concord schools, but the proposal regarding New Urban has garnered the larger uproar so far.

Dozens of New Urban students testified at the school board meeting on Thursday. Among them were alumni who had gone on to become college class presidents or join the U.S. military. They spoke of their diverse reasons for choosing the alternative high school: Some wanted to graduate early, and some want to escape the cliques of traditional high schools.

But once they chose the New Urban campus in Oak Grove, they frequently found a community that became like a supportive family to them.

Jennifer Woolf, a “proud” 23-year-old graduate of New Urban, feared beginning at Clackamas High School when she was finishing up eighth grade at Sunrise Middle School.

“At such a large school, I felt like I was drowning,” she said. “I struggled in class, I struggled with being teased, had teachers that hardly knew my name, and I didn’t feel like I was learning to the best of my ability.”

When a friend told Woolf about the opening of New Urban, she ran to the counselor’s office to get more information.

“Small classes and alternative ways of learning — this sounded like a school I could finally thrive in,” she said. “In short, I applied, I got accepted, and I didn’t realize until a few years later that I had just made the smartest decision of my life.”

‘Rocky start’

by: PHOTO BY: MARTIN WINCH - Kat Snyder, art teacher at New Urban High School, is viewed by many students not just as a great teacher, but also as the most important adult in their lives.Woolf had a strong sense of urgency when she heard of the possibility of her alma mater being forced to move back to the Schellenberg building in Clackamas. She started attending New Urban when it first opened there in 2003, experiencing firsthand the difference that being in the Oak Grove community made to create a environment that benefited students and staff. She remembered first two years at New Urban as “rocky,” while hardworking staff figured out how to make the school’s “wonderful idea” become a reality in a distracting environment.

“We had to create classrooms in a gym with walls we could stand up to see over,” she said. “There was no place to really feel at home, as we shared the building.”

In 2006, her junior year, Woolf was excited to hear that New Urban was moving to its own building. She saw opportunities open up from “a real location” and the necessary staffing to make it happen. While there, for example, she and a small group of students went to Salem to talk to representatives about the benefits of school-based health centers.

“It felt like we were taken seriously as an educational establishment,” she said. “We had a place that was ours. We were able to increase our staff, have more electives to choose from, more space, an art room and halls to fill with our projects, eventually a music room, and a community to work with. We had our chance to prove what New Urban would eventually become, and once we had that opportunity and space, we flourished as a school.”

New Urban has 13 classrooms, as well as a gym, a cafeteria, an auditorium, a music studio, a pottery room, its own main office, a meeting room, a counseling center with six offices, a shop, a stage, and an enclosed courtyard with chicken coops, gardens and greenhouses. At Schellenberg, there was no cafeteria, the gym (for New Urban’s PE classes or current basketball team) was used for classrooms, and there was no designated art room.

Martin Winch, a part-time English teacher who had last year been a frequent substitute art teacher at New Urban, pointed out that teachers, students and taxpayers have invested in their campus.

“The proposed move would be the end of New Urban as we know it, and the beginning of something completely different,” Winch said.

District seeks efficiencies

In announcing the proposal last month, district officials acknowledged that moving New Urban’s community would be challenging. If the school board decides to relocate the school, however, district leaders pledge to work with the New Urban community to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“We’re not going to say, ‘Go do this;’ we’re going to say, ‘Let’s build this together.’ Let’s look at all the options and see what’s best for students,” said district spokeswoman Leslie Robinette.

Although there’s a block of currently empty classrooms at Schellenberg, much of the technical equipment there cannot move, and New Urban students would likely have to walk past specialized classrooms. This could actually be great for New Urban students, Robinette added, where technical education teachers could spend some time working with them.

Currently, New Urban students don’t have access to programs at Sabin-Schellenberg, where participating students graduate at a rate exceeding 90 percent, if they take career-tech classes for two or more years. New Urban’s graduation rate has hovered around 30 percent over the past four years, and its current 146 enrollment has never achieved its goal of 200.

“At Schellenberg, the possibilities are limitless in terms of the opportunities for New Urban students,” she said.

Most of the details are yet to be determined over the spring and summer, assuming the school board authorizes a move. The $540,000 in savings would largely come from cutting New Urban’s principal, school secretary and custodial staff.

Although the district expects to save $180,000 by cutting two certified teaching positions as part of the move, it’s still up for discussion where those positions would come from. Depending how integrated staffing becomes, it may be difficult to determine whether those teachers would be “New Urban’s” or “Schellenberg’s.”

Winch hasn’t been alone in suggesting that some New Urban teachers would retire rather than face a “forced” move.

“It would be a devastating step back in the growth of such a wonderful school,” he said. “If you choose to switch locations, you’re not just cutting jobs of several wonderful teachers, you’re taking away the value of what so many staff and students, like me, have worked for.”

Oak Grove community

At the location on Johnson Road, New Urban wasn’t involved with the community as much, Woolf remembered from her days as a student there. She worries that New Urban would lose its alliances with the Oak Grove community, which the school relies on because of budget cuts.

“At the Sabin-Schellenberg location, it was difficult to prove to the community that this isn’t just a school full of problem kids,” she said. “New Urban is full of kids that need a different opportunity and access to the resources to help them be successful. Our attentive staff recognized that.”

Seniors complete internships with local businesses, and many students help with Oak Grove events, including a weekend outdoor market.

“Obviously, we can’t take this community to the new location,” Winch said.

Since district budget is calculated based on enrollment, New Urban community members are raising the specter of the school board’s decision backfiring. If New Urban students leave the North Clackamas School District, the district could lose more than they propose to save.

Robinette sees no reason that students wouldn’t be able to continue their involvement in the community with New Urban’s Youth Take Action class through canned food drives, picking up trash on Oak Grove Boulevard, volunteering at local schools and other community work. Also, she said, the Sabin-Schellenberg Center partners with businesses throughout Clackamas County and would work to maintain relationships with Oak Grove businesses that help students transition to life post-graduation.

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