In an era highlighting deep divisions between many of us, it is impressive to observe the similarities of the educational hopes and commitments that drove a Catholic community of the 1920s and inspires a 21st-century community college administrator. Equally impressive is the fact that these educational efforts have largely been activated in the same location: a facility once serving parishioners of St. Rita’s Catholic Church that today provides a variety of educational opportunities as the Maywood Park arm of Mt. Hood Community College.
While they were illegal for a time in the 1700s, Irish hedge schools were mainly in the 18th and 19th century in Ireland, and were in rural areas and usually or often outside. Many teachers giving literacy and knowledge to the young were priests and monks. A result of this is the emphasis on access to education that has long guided Catholic communities in the old countries and here in America, especially in areas where their children were discouraged or forbidden from going to school.
Likewise, the community college movement wassparked by the desire of parents and educators to see higher education available to those who couldn’t afford the expense of the four-year-plus college and university systems.
In both cases, the right to learn, to study, to gain knowledge and to be trained in areas that would help working people and their children find adequate employment has been driven by dreamers: men and women who believed education to be a right, not just a privilege.
In 1924, Father W. J. Maher, the initial resident pastor for the young St. Rita’s parish, went to his archbishop with a proposal to establish a school to serve parish children. He was denied then “because St. Rita’s was still a mission church,” and it was deemed to not be the appropriate time. The disappointed priest, an educator and graduate from Creighton University, proceeded to organize a class of “about twenty grammar school-aged students, plus one freshman and one sophomore.” He taught them in the room behind the first church’s altar. One of those students, Walter Zenner, observed in a 1973 publication about St. Rita’s that Maher was “25 years ahead of his time,” and indeed it took slightly over that many years for St. Rita’s parish to plan, build and operate its own school.
With an expanded focus on youth activities sponsored by the church, active enthusiasm for a school was revitalized. This time, the plans were approved by the archbishop, a groundbreaking ceremony was held April 23, 1950, and construction began on April 24.
On June 11, 1951, under the leadership of Father Thomas Keenan, St. Rita Elementary School was dedicated by Archbishop Edward D. Howard, and the cornerstone was laid. The building, largely constructed by men of the parish, had four classrooms and a gymnasium. Classes began Sept. 4 of that year with an enrollment of 125 students and three faculty members—two nuns and a lay teacher.
St. Rita’s school offered standard grammar school curriculum. Spring Carnival and a Book Faire became annual events. When Father Dominic Manzo succeeded Father Keenan in 1955, the new pastor supervised playground surfacing and two years of fundraising for the school’s expansion. Two more classrooms were added in 1961, after Father Nicholas Norusis succeeded to the pastorship of St. Rita’s parish. All these priests were members of the OSM, or Servite Order, and all demonstrated a strong commitment to education, struggling to keep the school operating despite increasing financial challenges. At the time, the huge Portland Public School system was competitive on a level that most of the smaller parochial schools simply could not meet.
In June 1972, the school’s final eighth-grade graduation marked the end of this facility as a parochial school, and it stood empty for some time, but a new phase of the educational process was yet to be. Mt. Hood Community College, serving an expanded area of Gresham and mid-Multnomah County, bought the complex, eventually developing educational services for Maywood Park and other communities in the area.
The current school complex hasn’t changed a lot since St. Rita closed the doors, but upgrades, new rooms and other repairs have appeared. The basic architecture, according to Bruce Battle, MHCC director of marketing and communications, is pretty much the same, which is problematic for today’s structural needs, including seismic upgrades, Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and wiring that’s adequate for “current technology and power demands.”
There are also problems with ground shifting and settling because trees that were cleared were buried, rather than removed. Much work needs to be done, as was often the case with St. Rita’s school.
However, education, the purpose of the campus, continues and grows, still serving the community as before, but in different ways.
Kelley Keith, dean of MHCC adult basic skills and director of Maywood Park Campus, began her own commitment to service as a Peace Corps volunteer. She taught English language classes in Poland and became interested in how people learn. Returning to the United States, she pursued a master of arts in linguistics, specializing in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), and realized the level of outreach that was needed to expand communication between speakers of different languages. While a grade school teacher, she saw firsthand the difficulties students from other countries had if they were attending English-speaking schools and going home to parents who spoke different languages and very little or no English.
As an administrator focused largely on adult education, she is also involved in promoting the variety of ways Mt. Hood Community College’s basic educational programs open doors through remedial training opportunities. This is her fifth year serving the Maywood Park Campus, where she comes from the Gresham campus two to three days weekly.
Keith’s focus at Maywood Park is to respond to the needs of the surrounding community and neighborhoods, which at present serves about 3,000 students and clients and where services expand from the administrative offices for Head Start and Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) to coursework preparing adults to enter or complete their college educations.
CCR&R refers students to different childcare programs throughout Multnomah County. It provides education for childcare providers. Childcare is, she says, “an in-demand industry, as working parents need affordable and dependable childcare.”
Of course, one of the largest programs out of Maywood Park Campus is the General Education Diploma program (GED), an opportunity to study for and take tests to acquire certification for high school equivalency. In cooperation with Parkrose High School, the High School Credit Recovery program serves those who have almost completed requirements for a high school diploma.
Another program the Maywood Park Center offers in partnership with Parkrose is Life Education for Adults of Parkrose (LEAP). The students are often those with special needs who are seeking independence training. An example is the Center’s Mocha Mama coffee shop, which trains students in the LEAP program for cashiering and some food service.
The Career Pathway Certificate can be earned for the careers of accounting assistant, assistant teacher and office assistant, while the WorkSource Center provides courses in job training that includes brushing up on or developing computer skills (free to members of the WorkSource program).
Maywood Park Center also offers library services to neighborhood residents. The stacks are small, but a patron can look up books on computers and order books to be sent to the library. Delivery seldom takes more than one to two days. There are also search and delivery services, and some books related to courses on campus are available to be checked out.
As mentioned, the center boasts Mocha Mama, a friendly coffee shop on Maywood Park’s second floor, and in the first or second week in March, the center hosts the Parkrose Community Job Fair, bringing in employers from all over the region.
Why Maywood Park? Keith says it is one side of the large MHCC District that has great need and not a lot of direct routes to the main campus.
This corner campus has educational mojo. It’s meant to serve those who need and want to seek educational opportunities, and, what’s more, I wouldn’t be surprised if the spirits of Fathers Maher, Keenan, Mazzo and Nouris, all the Sisters of the Holy Child who taught here and maybe even Dolores, the car used to transport the sisters from their convent to their daily teaching chores, are watching over their little school. Maybe they, along with St. Rita, Patroness of the Impossible and advocate for peace, are happy to see Maywood Park Center MHCC, once again in full gear, teaching those who need to be taught, who want to be taught and who believe good and committed education should be available for everyone. Keith’s phone number is 503-491-7313. Her email is Kelley.Keith@mhcc.edu.
Mt. Hood Community College’s Maywood Park Campus is at 10100 N.E. Prescott St. For more information and a schedule of classes visit www.mhcc.edu/maywood, or call 503-491-6100.