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Is there an ACE up Portland Public Schools' sleeve?


Mayor Sam Adams toured east Portland's Academy for Architecture Construction and Engineering last month. Adams and Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith met with design-build industry representatives and academy staff to discuss, among other things, partnerships between the transformative technical high school and PPS.
Mid-county Memo photo/Tim Curran
Mayor Sam Adams and Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith visited east Portland's Academy for Architecture Construction and Engineering last month to learn more about the innovative public charter technical high school that draws from seven east county high schools - Parkrose, Reynolds, Centennial, Gresham, Barlow, Springwater Trail, and Sandy.

A wide-ranging conversation from construction industry representatives centered on why ACE's industry partners are committed to the success of the design-build centric school and ways the mayor and Portland Public Schools can get more involved.

Dan Drinkward, ACE board member and Hoffman Construction operations manager said, “This project based, experiential education is just critical to be successful in the workplace.” He summed up how important the advanced training ACE students receive is when he said, “Another thing you learn from this type of education is 90 percent right is not an A minus in the construction world, 90 percent right when you're building something is criminally negligent. You can't get it (a construction project) partway there, and this type of learning cements that and really develops that understanding.” Hoffman has over a dozen ACE interns every year.

ACE graduates 90 percent of its students; its second class of 54 students graduated in June. Not counting students in alternative, special education or charter schools, PPS is graduating students at a 63 percent rate. This year, ACE started with 160 juniors and seniors from the Parkrose, Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial school districts (the Sandy School District withdrew from offering the program this year). The academy's capacity is 225 students.

Unlike other vocational and technical schools, ACE embeds required English, science and math classes in a curriculum designed equally by industry professionals and educators. Students attend either half or full days alternating at their home high school. ACE Academy's goal is not merely to prepare high school students for careers in the design-build industry. “We want them prepared to do what they need to do after they leave high school,” said Mike Bryant, new executive director at ACE. “We're with four school districts right now and we're excited to open talks with Portland Public Schools. We're going to move in and try and do something with Carole and her group.”

Senior Josh Coon, one of four full-time ACE students, who is considering the engineering program at Oregon State upon graduation, echoed Bryant. “They push you to achieve greater than just the normal standard. To get the highest grade here, you don't just have to do the work and do it correctly, you go above and beyond; you do research at home and it's difficult, but I enjoy that extra challenge. It's proficiency based; if you know it, you get a good grade. If you know it better and put more effort into it, you get a better grade.”

Coon, who has primarily been home-schooled, said he aspired to be an architect when he first enrolled, but after a few months of studying the careers in each field, he realized the path to becoming an engineer would better suit his skills and interests. “It's funny, because when I first came here the teachers recommended I concentrate on engineering, and now I am.”

Since ACE requires funding from schools (a negotiated amount, slightly different for each district, but about half what each school receives from the state per student) and industry, and with both facing budget cuts, student recruitment and retention can be difficult when career prospects seem on the wane. It may not be the best timing for the third year school but, despite its short existence, many already recognize ACE as the best career and technical education high school in the state.

Citing ACE's success, Oregon House Bill 3362 passed recently by unanimous vote. It makes creation of more charter schools like ACE easier and includes $2 million dollars to jumpstart formation of similar career and technical education programs. It also allows public charter schools to enter into partnerships with school districts and permits industry representatives to sit on the charter school's board, influencing curriculum and staffing.

For her part, Smith said she was interested in beginning discussions to see how PPS could work with ACE. She was also interested in hearing from the students at the meeting on how they dealt with transportation issues - a mix of public, private and school based vehicles - and going to two different schools on either the same or alternating days. She remarked how impressed she is with the anecdotes she hears at meetings about the cooperation between the different school districts, private companies and the ACE staff. “I hear all the time in meetings how smooth the collaboration runs between the different districts and ACE, and it is impressive.”

Adams, who campaigned in 2008 as an education mayor, said that because the last Portland Plan, done more than 30 years ago, did not meaningfully include education, the updated, state mandated 25-year version of the plan the city is in the final stages of completing is focused on bringing more robust and effective community partners to all Portland schools. He said ACE is a poster organization for this type of public and private non-profit partnership. “You're leading the way locally with the academy; we're very supportive of what you do here,” he said.

Adams cited the City Council's recent approval of the Youth Career Readiness Business Tax Credit, a two-year pilot program, available in tax years 2011 and 2012. Businesses that participate qualify for up to 75 credits each tax year applied toward business license fees.

The Council also approved a Foster Youth Employment Opportunity Business Tax Credit, which provides a $500 tax credit to businesses that employ foster youth certified by the State of Oregon Department of Human Services. “We know times are tough for businesses, but we also have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in recorded history,” the mayor said. “Like ACE, it's a work in progress, it's part of the Cradle to Career strategy that drives the school districts and county to support student success from birth until they graduate the twelfth grade or college.”

In another initiative - continuing Adams' relentless, collaborative efforts to lower Portland's dropout rate - he is working with the Portland Schools Foundation to offer summer school site visits for students in Ninth Grade Counts, a summer school support program for incoming ninth graders at risk of dropping out; “Just by visiting a place they would normally never have access to; it's the most cost effective way to keep kids in school,” he said. “Because if you can get them to see themselves at an architectural firm, engineering firm or construction site, if they can see themselves working at a cool place like this; it works.”
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