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My View: Combat disparities by supporting youth

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Student achievement across Oregon has been faltering. But here in Multnomah County we are taking an innovative, community-based approach that's working. The best way to get kids off the street and on their way to a successful future is to ensure every child receives top-quality education and career training.

At a time when we are in the midst of a national conversation about racial justice and disparities in our criminal justice system, as highlighted in the Unequal Justice investigation published in the Portland Tribune, I think it's important to remember that while criminal justice outcomes may be a symptom — it's not the root cause. A limited focus on courts and cops only gets you so far.

Instead, we must take a step back and look at the disparities experienced by people of color in education, health care and job opportunities. This is where the work needs to be done, and where we can have the greatest impact. Let's put our investments in job training programs and year-round educational support that narrow the achievement gap, giving our kids a chance to take control of their future.

Here in Portland we already are seeing how these investments pay off and change lives:

In 2016, 80 percent of Jefferson High School students graduated on time, up 14 percentage points in just one year. For the African-American students, that rate is 81 percent. For economically disadvantaged kids it's 79 percent (up 8 points over last year).

Thanks to a school curriculum re-design and partnership with Self-Enhancement Inc. (SEI), Jefferson High students can work with staff to develop individualized plans that meet their academic needs and their career goals.

I can speak directly to the importance of the after-school programs and the wrap-around services provided by SEI. For many years, as a single, working mom, I relied on them. From afternoon tutoring and mentoring to summer sports camps, SEI is an integral piece of our community.  

Success in the classroom is a good start, but more work must be done to equip African-American students for success. Since taking office in 2010, I have worked hard to create and grow our SummerWorks program. We started our first year with 25 students in 2011. In 2016, we served 500 Portland youth. SummerWorks contracts with Work Systems Inc. to place Portland kids in summer jobs. We partner with local businesses to provide valuable job training as well as paid internships.  

SummerWorks is not only about on-the-job training. It is about providing kids with life lessons about personal responsibility and the pride of earning a paycheck. Through the program, low-income youth ages 16-24 from diverse backgrounds participate in paid internships lasting from six to 10 weeks, for a total of 180 hours. In addition to the internship experience, youth receive work-readiness training and case-management services.

If you or someone you know might be interested in participating in this exciting program, contact George Hocker in my office at 503-988-5219.

Student achievement across Oregon has been faltering. But here in Multnomah County we are taking an innovative, community-based approach that's working. The best way to get kids off the street and on their way to a successful future is to ensure every child receives top-quality education and career training.

Loretta Smith is a member of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.