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Unsinkable skills

Boat project boosts talents of students often adrift in classrooms


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - High school students learn to build boats in a new approach by nonprofit Wind & Oar Boat School for at-risk youth.Cheyenne Maldonado grew up on a tiny reservation called Siletz, on Oregon’s central coast.

She’s done her best in high school in Portland but doesn’t think college is for her.

“I have a hard time learning,” the 17-year-old says. “I think I’d have a hard time in college because I’m having a hard time in high school now.”

Instead, Cheyenne wants to join the U.S. Air Force or the Marine Corps. This summer, however, she’s picking up a few skills that might help her in life and her next career: She’s building a wooden boat.

One recent morning she and her peers were planking the 16-foot wooden sailboat they’re working on, which involved carving the wood so it overlapped just perfectly. “I’m kind of a girly girl; I never worked with tools in my life,” Cheyenne says. “I thought why not try?”

Cheyenne is part of a unique workforce development program run through Wind & Oar Boat School, a Southeast Portland nonprofit that started up two years ago.

Organizers say it’s the perfect workforce training project.

“This will result in them returning to school, staying in school, pursuing the trades in design, engineering and other industries that pay family wages,” says Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems Inc., the nonprofit sponsor of the program. “It helps them understand there is a future out there, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional four-year route.”

In the past two years, Wind & Oar has offered youth build programs at five sites including this one, at its home base at ADX design school at Southeast 11th Avenue and Stark Street.

The others are at Self Enhancement Inc., Jefferson High School, Jason Lee School and Cascade Heights School in Clackamas.

Each of the five youth programs start with a collaboration between the schools, Wind & Oar and a private, anonymous donor who will own the boat at the end of each project, as they set sail in the Willamette River next month.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeremy Whiz, 19, a graduate from NAYA Early College Academy, uses a planer to shape a bow spreader on a sail boat. Whiz and other high school studnets are learning to build boats in a new approach to summer at-risk youth skills development. Each program has a math curriculum embedded in the project, along with hard and soft work skills like communication and teamwork with their fellow peers. There’s also an environmental science component, learning where the wood comes from and why certain species work for the job at hand.

Hannah Lynch, a young boat-building instructor, was recruited from Minnesota’s Twin Cities to work with the teens, for her boat expertise as well as her background in adolescent mental health.

She teaches her students the basics and then lets them work out the solution, together — whether it means working through a math problem or taking an artistic approach.

“It’s constant problem-solving,” Lynch says. “I think it’s just good for anybody, to start people using their hands and their brain.”

Kids receptive to learning

On a recent Monday, Cheyenne, a student at the Native American Youth & Family Center Early College Academy, worked quietly alongside three of her peers. Robert Stewart, 20, and Owen Mitchell, 17, both attend Mt. Hood Community College; and by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hannah Lynch, right, a boat builder instructor, assists Savannah Weber, 17, a student at Rosemary Anderson High School, as she screws in a wooden strake on a sail boat. Owen Mitchell, 17, a student at Mt. Hood Community College, helps. Savannah Weber, 17, is a student at Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center.

While planking the hull of the skiff, they use large wooden clamps to hold the pieces they’ve already glued and fitted with wedges that are just the right size.

After just four weeks of classes, they’ve become comfortable working as a team to figure out how to proceed, with minimal guidance. The 10-week program wraps up just after Labor Day.

Lynch looks on, proudly.

“These kids have a lot going on,” she says. “This is a safe place for them to put their head down and work and feel productive. They’re really open to learning.”

Wind & Oar founder Peter Crim — who also offers lessons for adults — says the summer youth programs are “no-brainers,” but he really wants to get into the schools, particularly Portland’s high schools.

He’s beginning a partnership with Hyland Park Middle School in Beaverton, a science, technology, engineering and math target school. But he hasn’t been able to break through the politics at Portland Public Schools to partner with a school during the academic year.

Crim admits there are challenges, like transportation, money and the time it takes to work on the projects. He estimates it costs about $5,000 per boat project, and up to 12 students can work on a boat at a time. “There’s no shortage of sources of kids” who would benefit, he says.

Other priorities

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Peter Crim is the executive director of the Wind & Oar Boat School. Worksystems’ McGough says public schools need not try to reinvent the wheel but look to public and private partnership opportunities to take advantage of the Wind & Oar program.

He has hired someone to collect data on the career-technical education programs offered in Portland, as well as Clackamas and Southwest Washington, and will have a report sometime next month.

“We’re trying to understand the CTE (Career and Technical Education) capacity in the region,” he says.

PPS has been trying to find a direction for its CTE programs since 2008, with an advisory committee that has stalled in the midst of the new high school framework implementation and enrollment and transfer policy review.

One PPS watchdog, Lainie Block Wilker, has been adamant in her call for more support of Benson Polytechnic High School, the district’s only CTE focus-option school.

She and her group, Smart Schools PDX, have repeatedly lobbied for the district to lift the enrollment cap at Benson. Since 2010 the district has allowed just 260 of the 400 or so incoming freshman applicants to enroll.

More students at Benson means fewer students attending Jefferson, Madison and other schools needing to boost their own enrollment.

“PPS cannot cost-effectively replicate Benson’s CTE at other schools, given the expensive specialized equipment, established industry partnerships, and Benson is PPS’ only school with approved (Bureau of Labor and Industries) apprenticeships through the Portland Workforce Alliance,” Block Wilker says. “With ongoing budget shortfalls, PPS is unlikely to replicate Benson’s specialized equipment for aviation, health sciences (X-ray, dental and nursing equipment), welding, machine shop, automotive, electrical, radio communications and metal fabrication.”

The district and school board have so far ignored community pleas, focusing now on how to balance enrollment at the elementary and K-8 schools.

PPS soon will name a new principal at Benson, since Carol Campbell just accepted the top post at Grant. And two new school board members, Steve Buel and Tom Koehler, have vowed to make CTE programming one of their top priorities.

In the meantime, Cheyenne is learning new things each day. She already feels like she’s learned more math during her boat building than in the classroom.

What she loves most of all is watching the boat physically take shape. To her, it’s more gratifying than any test score she’s earned.

“When I first came here, it was nothing,” she says. “To see it all come together, we’re making progress on our daily goals every day.”