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Gray students go GREAT

Sixth-graders graduate from Portland Police Bureau's Gang Resistance Education And Training program


or many students, middle school is a time of newfound independence. And thanks to the Portland Police Bureau, sixth-graders at Robert Gray Middle School are now better equipped to handle that independence safely.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: JOANN ALMINIANA  - Officers James Crooker, Amy Bruner-Dehnert, Alex Quinsland and Melissa Newhard at Robert Gray's GREAT program graduation May 30.

On May 30, representatives from the Portland Police Bureau came together with Robert Gray’s 145 sixth-graders to celebrate the students’ successful completion of the Gang Resistance Education And Training (GREAT), a school-based, law-enforcement-taught program aiming to protect students from youth violence, delinquency and gang involvement.

Once each week for 13 weeks, trained, uniformed police officers visited each sixth-grade science class and facilitated activities that, according to the PPB website, aim to “result in the necessary life skills, a sense of competency, usefulness, and personal empowerment needed to avoid involvement in youth violence and criminal activity.”

Sixth-grade science teacher Kelli Barrett says Robert Gray has been offering the GREAT program annually since before she started teaching there nearly two decades ago, and that it has proven to be an invaluable aspect of the sixth-grade curriculum.

“The program teaches a lot of refusal skills. That’s one thing: Communication, how to express yourself, how not to get sucked in when everybody around you is tempting you,” Barrett says, “and you practice role-playing strategies so that when the time comes that you’re tempted, something pops into your brain, hopefully.”

“They guide sixth-grade students through what it means to grow up to be a healthy adolescent that knows how to make choices,” says Principal Beth Madison. “The ultimate idea is to get them to resist gangs and other negative influences that they tend to gravitate to if they don’t have enough positive assets in their lives.”

And the GREAT program is not confined to the classroom; to qualify for a certificate of graduation, each student had to log at least 20 hours of community service.

“We notified (the students) in plenty of time so they’d have time to do it … and … they get to pick what they want to do,” Barrett explains. “Some (kids) are real lucky and have people that take them to different places to experience different things; some kids are more independent and take a garbage bag throughout the community at certain times on Sunday mornings and fill them up with what they find on a little walk and take pictures of themselves doing it. So, the community benefits, and the kids’ self-esteem benefits, because they feel good about doing stuff.”

Students volunteered throughout Portland and in their own backyard at Rieke Elementary School and events put on by Hillsdale Main Street. They then documented that community service on poster boards.

“The community service hours, and then the documentation where they made those beautiful boards, those were kind of tough on some families. Honestly, a lot of these families are so hardworking, and they’re already doing so much with their kids, that to have to try to do a quality project … I know caused angst in some families. But then in the end almost every student did one, and I think they ended up being quite a big source of pride,” says Madison. “We know especially young adolescents love to help and serve and do meaningful work, so this was a particularly great idea.”

Barrett agrees. “Any time you can get middle schoolers to widen their horizons, and not just think about themselves, then you’ve got a success, because they’re pretty egocentric generally. And then they kind of appreciate their circumstances, too. Some people have it a lot worse.”

In the end, students rose to the occasion. Barrett estimates that about 20 percent of students performed more than 15 extra hours of community service — an unprecedented amount for the school.

“They took it upon themselves to do more, because they loved it. It really was kind of cool. They liked it, and so they continued to do something, because it felt good to help out,” she says.

The students who exceeded the minimum hours have been rewarded certificates of participation, but at the graduation celebration, all were honored with a time-honored celebration: a pizza party.

“Some people say we don’t have a gang problem here at our school,” Barrett says. “While that might be true, we do have adolescent issues, and the strategies they use are good for all for navigating the minefield.”

Barrett and Madison agree that by introducing Portland police officers as allies, not enemies, who can teach them something and keep them safe, the GREAT program is, well, great.

“It’s a great program,” Barrett says, “and it only benefits the community, because we’ve got great kids here.”