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IRCO kept kids learning, working over the summer


Portland police officer Tina Willard, left, shows Chelsie Lentz, a Portland Multnomah Youth Corps
program participant, how to look up a crime suspect's files.
Lazing around in the heat during the long, hot days of summer was only a dream for more than 500 students and young people this summer, due to the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization's programs that kept them busy, either at summer school and/or a paying job.

The SummerWorks jobs program - funded by the recently passed Federal Recovery Act and administered locally by WorkSystems, Inc., through IRCO - placed 228 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 in jobs with the city of Portland, private businesses and nonprofits. To be eligible, they had to meet low-income guidelines and identify as at least one of the following: school dropout or at risk of dropping out; deficient in basic literacy skills; gang involved or effected; homeless, runaway or foster child; juvenile justice offender or effected; pregnant or parenting; learning or physical disabled; one or more grade levels behind in school.

Thirty Multnomah County high school students failing in at least one core subject entering their sophomore year participated in IRCO's Portland Multnomah Youth Corps program. The program included three weeks of classes to restore lost credits with work readiness training, followed by six weeks of employment at various city of Portland bureaus and departments.

The youth worked in city offices, as camp counselors, grounds and building maintenance assistants, construction helpers and in customer service positions. In Mid-county, youth were placed in the Police Activities League and at the East Portland Community Center. These student-workers were received by the employers at zero cost, and their salaries were paid by IRCO with stimulus dollars.

Shannon Wilson, coordinator of the SUN School program at Harold Oliver Primary School, which is operated by Metropolitan Family Services, had two SummerWorks program students helping out with her summer program. “It's fantastic!” she said. “It's been great to have that kind of energy. They were really good with the kids, and it's really nice to have younger role models - especially younger than college age - for the kids, and especially to have males.” Wilson admitted that there were initially some work habit issues with the students, like punctuality and dependability. She said that after some discussion, the two students quickly addressed the need to call if a schedule change is needed. Arriving on time took more work, but “that's just a maturity issue,” she said.

Chelsie Lentz, 17, was another SummerWorks participant. Homelessness contributed to her missing her first six weeks of high school. Most schools will not admit students who do not have a permanent address. Gresham High School allowed Chelsie to attend, but by that point she had missed so much algebra, she couldn't quite catch up. During IRCO's summer school, Chelsie took classes at Benson High School, replacing her F in algebra with a B, followed by serious work in the Portland Police Bureau's forensic evidence department.

Under the supervision of 19-year veteran Police Officer Tina Willard, Chelsea worked at crime scenes, photographing, dusting for and lifting fingerprints, collecting evidence, matching prints of suspects with previous records and other general office duties. Now, she has the goal of becoming a police officer, despite the knowledge of what that requires in the way of high school and college credits.

Chelsea is ready to make the sacrifices. “Before, I didn't know what (to major in) or even why I'd go to college. Now I know I want to be criminalist. My credits will be up, I won't get behind, I won't be homeless, and I will keep my attendance and work up. I know I need to hang out with positive people, not negative people who'll get me in trouble, (and) be a leader, not a follower.”

Willard was so impressed with Chelsea, she is currently working to secure a part-time position so Chelsea can continue working in the PPB's forensic evidence department during the school year.

In the academics support arena, IRCO provided 57 students with four Ninth Grade Counts programs for incoming freshmen: one at Sabin Elementary, one at Madison High School and two at Marshall High School, developed and funded by the Portland Schools Foundation and the city of Portland.

Research shows that most students who fail a core class in the first year of high school will end up dropping out of school, no matter how much support they receive in later years. Ninth Grade Counts was specifically designed for at-risk students who will enter high school in the fall. Students spent approximately six hours a day for at least one month in a combination of lessons in core subjects and weekly field trips to local work sites and colleges. The purpose is to show students various educational and career visions, the hope being that it will motivate and focus them.

One of the more unusual career exploration sites was the Center for Coastal Margins, Observations, and Predictions, a Columbia River estuary research organization where the students met with oceanographers, marine biologists and geologists. Another great opportunity was a meeting with arborists at the Portland Parks and Recreation Department, who demonstrated some of their skills for climbing into trees to remove dead wood.

The IRCO Ninth Grade Counts programs focused on students with limited English proficiency, and one of IRCO's programs partnered with El Programa Hispano. The classroom portion of the programs utilized students from Marlyhurst University's Master's of Arts in Teaching program to provide high-quality instruction, in addition to the IRCO instructional staff. Additionally, each class was enhanced by an AmeriCorps member who acted as a general classroom aide and activity leader.

Over 200 more students were serviced at six SUN schools (Sabin, Rigler, Lent, King, and Gilbert Park elementary schools and one at Madison High School in east Portland) through summer programs operated by IRCO.

IRCO's main office, skill center and language bank is in east Portland at 10301 N.E. Glisan St. IRCO's mission is to promote the integration of refugees, immigrants and the community at large into a self-sufficient, healthy and inclusive multiethnic society. Visit to learn more about what IRCO does in and for our community.

Editor's note: Rowanne Haley is Community Relations Director at IRCO.
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