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Roosevelt sees hope in bond projects

First, PPS will listen to what students, community want


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Roosevelt High School students break for off-campus lunch, passing under the cracked pillars showing the 1921 Colonial Revival building's age. The design process kicks off soon for Roosevelt's $70 million rebuild. The historic structure will be preserved.There’s one classroom at Roosevelt High School that used to be so crowded, some students had to sit in the window sill because there was no space for more desks.

Eventually, students dropped out.

In other rooms of the North Portland school, floor boards are warped, the heat doesn’t turn on and students use relatively new computers with Internet connections so slow that their web pages often expire — right in the middle of filling in scholarship applications.

Junior Abby Pasion, Roosevelt’s junior class president, has been working to see that those problems are soon in the past.

By lending her voice to the “Our Portland, Our Schools” campaign, she helped convince voters to approve the $482 million Portland Public Schools construction bond measure in May.

Finally, the changes will soon become a reality. And Pasion is thrilled that Roosevelt is first on the list.

“Even if I’m not here to see it, my siblings will be,” says Abby, who has a 12-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister.

This month, the PPS Office of Modernization begins its “education specifications” process to create a guide for what the renovated physical spaces at Roosevelt and other schools should look like.

The public process includes students, teachers, families and community members engaging with the architect on contract, Dull Olson Weekes Architects.

The general plan is for Roosevelt — constructed in the 1920s — to be gutted and modernized, while maintaining the historic style and structure of the facade, including the bell tower.

But what will it look like inside, exactly?

Abby wants to see larger classrooms, with better technology.

Vice Principal Greg Newman wants to see “transformable” learning environments for students and teachers as well as 24/7 access for community members, who could drop in for computer classes or summer programs.

“Roosevelt is the center of the St. Johns community; it is the heart of the community,” he says.

As far as school security, Newman says it would be nice to have a more visible front office space and key cards rather than a huge collection of keys; there are more than two dozen outside doors on campus.

John Weekes, Dull Olson Weekes’ principal partner, says that since students are the primary occupants of the school, their voices will be critical in the ed spec process.

“You’d be surprised how insightful students are,” he says. “They tend to have practical ideas, stuff that adds value.”

For example, he’s heard students say they want a “warm and welcoming and homelike” atmosphere, or “places we can sit and talk and socialize.”

Weekes’ firm designed Rosa Parks Elementary School, not far from Roosevelt, six years ago. But he dismisses any comparison between Rosa Parks and the yet-to-be-designed schools. “It’s a totally different conversation,” he says.

Heery International, the Portland company retained by PPS for construction management services, will also make sure students are engaged. Senior Program Manager Ken Fisher says in the past he’s worked with districts that have led student tours, arranged internships with construction and design firms, held youth building contests and invited them to create murals on the construction barriers at their schools.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: An early version of this story misstated Heery International's role in the PPS bond program.)

Doing this one right

Roosevelt’s $70 million physical transformation will be just another step in its renaissance. In 2009, it was among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, which led to a federal school improvement grant of $7.7 million during three years, starting in 2010.

Principal Charlene Williams has used the funds for teacher training, targeted programming and other changes that helped turn around both achievement and the school reputation, which in turn brought more neighborhood students.

The past two years saw an influx of 145 students, to its current 828. The growth is expected to continue. That’s part of the reason Owens says Roosevelt will go first — because its geographic location makes it tough to find available swing space, so students will have to stay on site during the construction. If the school keeps growing, there will be more students to shuffle around.

Says Newman, the vice principal: “We want to make sure we do this one right. We understand people are watching. We have a lot of excitement, pride and a little apprehension.”

Getting the word out

Community members aren’t waiting around for PPS to begin its public process. Mike Verbout, a 1962 Roosevelt alumnus, president of the Roosevelt Alumni Association and founding member of “Our Portland, Our Schools,” wants to leave the status quo behind.

“We need learning labs, group spaces,” he says. “It’s not chairs in a row, teachers at the front giving out knowledge — that’s not it.”

Verbout and other advocates are starting to get the word out about the bond planning, not relying on the typical PPS public involvement process.

First up is a booth at the Jan. 21 Winterfest event at the St. Johns Community Center, where hundreds of residents typically show up. In mid-February, he and a group of citizen advocates will hold their own open forum, inviting the architects to have a dialogue with the community.

“We want everybody on the planet to know,” says Verbout, who has advocated for Roosevelt’s future for decades. “Trust is still a big issue (with the district); we want to make sure what we promised people is what they get.”