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  • 5 May 2015

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Portland has a dream

Local version of I Have A Dream model gives students resources, not just money, to succeed in life

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - College banners in the Hall of Dreams at Alder School remind students of Portlands lowest-income school of their special status as the only school in the country adopted by I Have A Dream.This isn’t what Eugene Lang had in mind.

Lang is the wealthy industrialist who stood up before a third-grade class at his East Harlem elementary school alma mater 31 years ago prepared to make a speech about the value of working hard and how everybody could get ahead in America. Stepping to the podium, Lang changed his speech. He told the students that he would guarantee college tuition for every one of them who graduated high school.

Lang’s surprise announcement was blockbuster news at the time. Maybe not intentionally, Lang appeared to be saying to the families of those children whose lives had lacked hope and opportunity — put up or shut up. Lang gave those kids hope and, it appeared, opportunity.

He also created a foundation — I Have A Dream — that today has chapters in 13 states, where money is raised, classes are

adopted, and students are told they will have money for their college educations. In addition, these Dreamer classes are provided coordinators who bring in mentors and tutors and arrange special programs, because Lang realized soon after his announcement that his families and children couldn’t put up without help.

Leave it to Oregon to abandon that model and develop a new one now being watched by I Have A Dream chapters throughout the country. Three years ago the Oregon I Have A Dream chapter decided to change course on Lang’s promise. Rather than adopt another class with the lure of college scholarships, it decided to adopt an entire school, with a lesser emphasis on providing college tuition.

The idea, according to Mark Langseth, president of I Have A Dream Oregon, is to bring the benefits of the Dreamer model not just to a low-income class or a school, but potentially to all Portland-area schools.

“We want to make a bigger difference in schools and neighborhoods,” Langseth says. “We’d like to demonstrate a different way for communities and schools to work together.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Alder School student Fred Jiminez looks up at the banners from colleges across the country hanging from the rafters of the school gym. As much as 60 percent of students in I Have A Dream adopted classes have gone on to post-high school education. But adopting an entire school is presenting the foundation with new challenges.

Eleven-year-old Fred Jiminez doesn’t know much about public policy and schools. But Fred has been at Alder School in far Southeast Portland since kindergarten and already he’s taken on a Dreamer view of academics. “It’s like a marathon,” Fred says. “You start in kindergarten and go all the way to high school.”

In fourth grade, Fred read at the third-grade level. Now in fifth grade, he reads at the sixth-grade level. Through I Have A Dream (and the nagging of his older sister, Jessenia) Fred was persuaded to write an essay as part of a program called Marathon Scholars, and as a result he now has a $12,000 college scholarship in the bank.

Freddie already has visited a half-dozen local colleges and is set on attending the University of Oregon and becoming a police officer someday. Ask him his school number and Fred says, “2026.” Monthly Dreamer assemblies at Alder include a chant at which each grade level shouts out their number — the year they will graduate from college.

“That’s when my reputation starts,” Fred says when asked what 2026 means to him. “That’s where you start to grow up. You don’t have your mom to feed you anymore, and you need more responsibility.”

But not every student at Alder is a Fred, who was identified in fourth grade as a student with exceptional potential. Adopting a school of 520 rather than a class of 40 or 50 changes the I Have A Dream model. The local chapter can’t be expected to raise funds to provide college tuition for all. Instead, the Alder School Dreamers are getting a collection of special services — from after-school tutors and summer programs to tours of local colleges — intended to help prepare them to get through high school and focus on college.

The I Have A Dream model of adopting a class, guaranteeing a college scholarship, and providing help was working, in Oregon and across the country. About 60 percent of Lang’s original Dreamer class in Harlem ended up pursuing some form of post-high school education. Results for the 10 Oregon classes are about the same.

Victim of own success

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jessenia Jiminez watches her younger brother, Fred, play a video game before he walks to school. Fred has already earned a $12,000 tuition scholarship for college.Yet the program was becoming indefensible, say Langseth and Paul Mortimer, I Have A Dream - Oregon vice president for advancement, because the third-grade classes at Forest Grove Elementary and Rigler Elementary do not exist in vacuums. “The previous model, while wonderful for those students it served, was not making any systemic change, and the problem is growing too fast,” Mortimer says.

How fast? According to Mortimer, the overall student population in Portland area schools grew 6 percent during the past 10 years, but the percentage of those students who are low-income grew 62 percent.

“This is a crisis,” Mortimer says. “It’s morally wrong for us to let poverty become a life sentence for those (non-Dreamer) children.”

In a sense, I Have A Dream has become a victim of its own success. It developed its own equity issue, according to Donna Lawrence, president of the national I Have A Dream Foundation, by creating a gap between students who were part of the program and those who were not.

The Dreamer program also became a victim of its own success at Alder. Enrollment at Alder started to increase soon after the school was adopted by I Have A Dream and parents in Southeast Portland learned of the extra services that were available as a result, says Andrea Watson, communications director for the Reynolds School District.

In response, the Reynolds School District was forced to shrink the Alder School boundaries last year, sending 153 Alder students to other district elementary schools — and out of the Dreamer program. The alternative was Alder classes in hallways, which started happening as enrollment exceeded 600.

Which only serves to increase emphasis on the need for I Have A Dream’s schoolwide model to show success, and quickly, Mortimer says.

Four years in, the returns at Alder are positive but not conclusive. Two years ago, 15 percent of Alder third-graders were meeting state reading benchmarks. This year, the number is up to 31 percent. I Have A Dream officials point to the three reading organizations they have brought into Alder.

But the true test, says Chris Russo, Reynolds’ chief academic officer, will come with high school graduation rates and beyond, because historically, very few Alder kids sought education beyond high school. At the very least, Russo says, he is certain Alder’s status as a Dreamer school is having a positive impact because it is helping stabilize the lives of the students there.

Creating achievers

Measuring success also is difficult because I Have A Dream is a partner; it can’t make over Alder School, the Portland area’s most challenged elementary school.

Alder has gone through four principals in four years. Almost every teacher in the school is a recent arrival. The average income of Alder families ranks the school behind only a school in Warm Springs. Six of 10 Alder students are still learning English, and students at the school speak 27 different first languages. Almost every Alder student qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

The Dreamer program coordinates more than 70 different nonprofits, colleges and local businesses offering help to Alder students — not an easy task. According to Russo, for the first two years many of those nonprofit volunteers were getting in one another’s way. Only in the last two years have I Have A Dream and the school administration managed an efficient delivery of those services, in Russo’s view.

Russo fully supports the idea of I Have A Dream adopting a school rather than a classroom and promising resources instead of college tuition — but for a slightly different reason than that expressed by Dreamer officials.

“When you offer (students) tuition you’re catering to a behaviorist model, ‘Here’s your reward at the end,’ ” Russo says. The program at Alder is attempting to build what he calls “intrinsic motivation” — students with a core belief in themselves as achievers. “If you want things to be long lasting or transformative change, you have to go to a deeper level,” Russo says.

And as for the tuition, should Freddie and a number of his fellow Alder students make it through Reynolds High School college-ready, Russo says I Have A Dream officials have assured him the tuition money will be there. Given their backgrounds, most of the Alder kids will qualify for scholarships that volunteers will help them get, and the Dreamer foundation will find donors to fill in the gaps.

Helping 520 students is simply not the same as helping 50 or 60 at one grade level. Dreamer officials know that. At successful schools such as Forest Grove, I Have A Dream brought coordinators into the school who became like second parents to the Dreamer kids and were available for all kinds of help. At Alder, the Dreamer coordinator is a traffic manager more than a mentor.

“When you have a smaller scale, when it’s just 50 or 60 kids and a higher staff-to-student ratio, it’s easier to pay deep attention to every single one of those kids,” Langseth says. “With this model we’re still wanting to pay deep attention, but it’s much bigger, and we’re also not in control as much as we were in the classroom.”

Mortimer says that Eugene Lang learned soon after adopting his East Harlem class that promising college tuition wasn’t enough, and that is the most important lesson being applied at Alder School. Kids such as Fred Jiminez have too many years ahead of them listening to too many voices contrary to the I Have A Dream college message, he says.

“I think this may be one reason why the promise of scholarships for Dreamers was less effective than might have been imagined,” Mortimer says. “Such a promise is nice to have, but its fulfillment is so far in the future that, on a day-to-day basis, it loses its power to motivate.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A list of college vocabulary words in the Alder School hallway is part of the process of inculcating students with a college culture mentality.

Keeping Dreamers in school takes a little more work

Paz Ramos was principal at Alder School three years ago when I Have A Dream was just getting settled in at the school. He was used to working with students from low-income households and wasn’t a newbie. But he can still recall a conversation with one of the Alder kids that brought tears to his eyes.

Ramos, no longer at Alder, was talking to a third-grade girl whose parents had told her they had to move and that she would attend another school.

“I don’t want to move,” the girl told Ramos. “I won’t be able to go to college.”

That student, Ramos says, had adopted the mentality of a Dreamer. “This little girl knew what her future was going to be if she stayed at Alder and she also knew her future if she didn’t stay at Alder.”

Three years into the Alder School experiment, the most vivid lesson learned by I Have A Dream officials is that you can’t help children if they don’t stick around. Alder School has a mobility rate of about 30 percent. That means more than one of every four kids who starts in a class at the beginning of the school year will have moved to another school and been replaced with a different student by year’s end.

I Have A Dream’s adopt-a-school program only works if the Alder kids stay on track at Alder, its two feeder middle schools and Reynolds High School, where Dreamer programs will follow them.

So the first job, says Mark Langseth, president of I Have A Dream Oregon, has been to work with housing agencies on a set of unprecedented initiatives to keep Alder kids in the neighborhood.

Nonprofits Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland) and Human Solutions have combined to offer $390,000 in rent assistance targeted to help Alder families stay in place. Targeted rental assistance on that level has never been provided before in Portland, says Ian Slingerland, Home Forward’s homeless initiative director.

Here’s something else that’s new: Home Forward runs two public housing buildings in the Alder area. Public housing throughout the city is in great demand, with waiting lists at almost all buildings. But when an Alder family that qualifies for public housing is faced with having to move, they get sent to the front of the line for the next available apartment at one of the two Alder neighborhood buildings.

In addition, most rental assistance distributed by Home Forward runs for two years, but Alder families can get it for as long as they have a child at Alder.

All of which is critical if the I Have A Dream adopt-a-school approach is going to work, according to Paul Mortimer, I Have A Dream Oregon’s vice president for advancement. The 30 percent mobility rate, for instance, can be overcome, Mortimer says, because data shows that most of that mobility occurs when children are very young and parents are still struggling to get settled.

“If you can get them through Alder, your chances of retaining them improves,” Mortimer says. “When Home Forward says, ‘We’re not in the housing business, we’re in the business of breaking the cycle of poverty,’ then suddenly were in the same boat.”