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Alternative high school helps students excel


Marcelina Jimenez, right, one of 90 graduates from the Helensview class of 2006, receives homework help from JoAnn Ryan, a 29-year Multnomah Education Service District employee with 10 years of service as a Helensview School educator.
For most children, home is a place to feel safe and loved. But for some, school provides for them what home life cannot. Helensview School fills that need for students enrolled there.

In 1977, the Multnomah Education Service District began a program in Mid-Multnomah county that would provide a way for teenage girls who were either pregnant or parenting to continue their education. In 1994 the recently closed Sumner Elementary School, at 8678 N.E. Sumner St., re-opened as Helensview School in response to the need for a larger school as the mission had evolved to include more categories of at-risk kids. Helensview School is funded and operated by the Multnomah Education Service District, a public agency responsible for regional education services to eight school districts in Multnomah County. MESD is responsible for special, alternative, and outdoor education, school health services, technology school improvement and administrative support for the Parkrose, David Douglas, Reynolds, Portland, Centennial, Gresham-Barlow, Corbett and Riverdale school districts.

Principal Kris Persson, who has been at Helensview School since 1996, said that when she arrived the school was in dire need of repair, direction and guidance.

She said it was in such bad shape, she thought it should have been closed down. Instead, she worked with the MESD and has subsequently added an entirely new alternative educational program to the school. Other changes to the original plan for the school have broadened the scope to include more students with a variety of needs.

Soon after her arrival, Persson enrolled the school’s first student father and then began to admit teenagers from jails around the Portland area.

All students at Helensview School have been rejected by schools they were previously attending and have no place else to go. Helensview accepts students who are pregnant or parenting, on probation or parole, close to dropping out of high school, or have already dropped out or been suspended or expelled.

Today, 239 students, ages 12-21, attend Helensview School. There are five primary programs students enroll in at Helensview: Phoenix, Trellis, RISE, Turnaround and PRIDE. (See sidebar for individual program information.) Each program is specifically designed to help students with different needs, including students returning from prison, students at risk for behavior problems, and students who are pregnant or parenting.

For many students, Helensview School is the last stop before one of two things happen-students begin to turn their lives around by changing self-destructive behavior patterns, helping them become productive, healthy adult members of society- or they continue the downward spiral into lives of low paying, nowhere jobs; addiction, a trail of broken relationships, or crime.

Persson said the programs are supported by Multnomah County as part of a system to get teen parents and delinquents to go to, and to stay in, school. Persson also said the school is unique in the way it approaches education because many of the students have been enrolled in other high schools but, for one reason or another, did not fit in or succeed in regular classrooms.

Because of this, Persson said the faculty is constantly coming up with new ways to keep the students interested in learning.

“The only thing we have is the trust we build with students and to make them belong,” Persson said. “We’re very spontaneous. Of course we have a schedule, but if we find something that will interest a student, we’ll do it.”

One example she gave was an auction using special money awarded for good behavior, on-time completion of tasks and good attendance. On the day of the auction, students bid for items they need the most.

Persson said the items auctioned off are purchased from the school’s budget and include merchandise from lists the students submit. She said televisions, stereos, clothing, diapers and formula are common items on the list.

Although she did not reveal how much money is in the school operating budget, Persson did say that the key is dividing the money between programs and that she is determined to give her students the best education possible with what resources the school has.

Like other public schools, Helensview is funded on a tax base. It also receives support from other sources, such as “pass-through” dollars from the districts because it provides services that Persson said are too expensive for traditional public schools to offer, but necessary to get students excited to come to school. For example, the school has a fully equipped recording studio, including a recording room with eight Macintosh computers and programs to digitally add background music. There is also a workout room, complete with treadmills, weights and stair steppers.

The school enrolls 80 pregnant or parenting students, all of who take advantage of a fully equipped childcare center. The money to build the center was donated by MESD, which Persson said provides full support.

“We have such an incredible child care center,” she said. “It’s a huge advantage, and the district supports that.”

Persson said her job challenges her every day due to the nature of the school. She said many of the students deal with anger issues, which the school addresses as best as it can. Posters line the walls of the school with words encouraging respect for others.

The school has developed a primary curriculum to deal with problematic issues, focusing on three main areas: anger management, social skills and conflict resolution. Students are taught healthy ways to expel their anger, how to use the skills they have to interact with others, and to deal with conflict in calm ways.

Persson said the curriculum focuses on keeping students in school and allowing them to accrue credits, as well as reducing any chance they have of returning to jail.

“We want to help kids make positive decisions,” she said.

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