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  • 18 Apr 2014

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Teens reconnect to their future

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Reuben Johnson, 19, a former Grant student, needs just two more credits to graduate. Volunteers knocked on 200 doors last month to engage students and families who left the system.   It’s mid-morning on a Thursday, and a handful of teens help themselves to a peanut butter sandwich, a bagel or cup of coffee.

Then they get out their

music and headphones, their textbooks, notebooks and pencils, and find their seats in a classroom.

With the help of a teacher and fewer than 10 students in the same room, they’ll spend the next few hours digging through material they didn’t get — or weren’t there to learn — the first time around.

This time, they’ll complete the material not just to be done with it, but to actually learn it.

Welcome to Portland Public Schools’ Reconnection Center, a four-year-old initiative that is doing its part to pull would-be dropouts back into the system.

In high schools as a whole, “we do a really good job of shaming (students who leave school),” says Lynn Buedefeldt, who oversees curriculum at the Reconnection Center. “Here, we don’t shame them. There’s also no magic thinking that someone owes you a grade because you sat in a room for a semester.”

Staff here see their work as a critical piece of larger system. “We are not separate from the high school system, we are part of it,” says Jocelyn Bigay, director of the Reconnection Center as well as the district’s five-year, $8 million federal high school graduation initiative.

Students who weren’t motivated to go to class or do work in their normal high school setting are somehow re-engaged here, ready to learn.

Part of it is the approach: work is done on a proficiency scale, meaning there’s no dozing in the back of the class and skating by. If you don’t earn 4s and 4.5s on a 5-point proficiency scale in your given subject, you don’t complete the course.

One recent morning, Dustin Contreras, 18, was working on pre-calculus. He’d left Lincoln High last year a few credits short of graduating, despite his plan to go to college to become a programmer or graphic designer.

At Lincoln, he says, “it was more structured. If we failed any test three times, we had to do things to take it a fourth time. Here you can just take it again.”

In another classroom, Rueben Johnson, 19, reviewed his vocabulary words. Work got in the way of his finishing up at Grant; he had to take on two part-time jobs to pay rent for an apartment he shares with his sister, and simply didn’t have time for school.

At another table Astrid Johnson, 15, listened to music as she studied her anatomy text. She also attended Grant but was intimidated by the size of the school and crowded classes. “I have really bad anxiety issues,” she says. “I used to look at due dates and just shut down, not do it at all. Teachers here don’t breathe down your neck; you can go at your own pace.”

Ask any of the students here what high school should be like, and they’ll describe the Reconnection Center: small class sizes, flexible schedules, lots of support and more communication and consideration of the things that often get in the way of their studies: life.

“Some are here because of necessity,” Bigay says. “Some are here because it’s a better place for them. Every single one is motivated to wake up every morning and be here.”

Another ingredient to their success: the relationships, with the teachers, staff, outreach workers and now a full-time psychologist charged with dealing with the full range of mental health and trauma issues.

Ed Keating, who has worked at schools nationally as well as at Springfield High School after the Kip Kinkel school shooting, says the goal is to help students build skills to achieve a state of “attentive calm” so they can learn. Multigenerational poverty and trauma are barriers to learning, he says.

To put it another way, “If a human being’s heart is broken, your work suffers,” Buedefeldt says.

Awareness of the program is spreading. So far this school year, 178 of the 200 available slots are full, which makes the staff worry because most students don’t drop out until later in the year — meaning there soon won’t be room to accommodate them.

Students find their way to the Reconnection Center (in a wing of Benson High School) by referrals, by the ads on TriMet buses, or by the outreach workers who literally come knocking. A team of 47 volunteers knocked on 200 doors citywide on Sept. 14, talking to students and their families who’d left the system and trying to get them to re-engage.

“These guys are like a hand, pulling you in,” Bigay says.

Last year, of 500 students contacted by an outreach worker, 60 percent came back.

Dennis Fournier, one of the staff outreach coordinators, isn’t afraid to share his own experiences with families.

At one home, he says, he met a boy who hadn’t shown up at school for six months, and angrily pushed away anyone who tried to help him.

Fournier says the boy had problems with his father demeaning him, so Fournier shared his own problems with his father when he was a teen. “I told him I took it as motivation ... To prove to the community, his mother, his self, that’s not who you are.”

The boy smiled, Fournier says. Best of all, “he’s showing up.”