Education Opinion

A Community Unites to Send Low-Income Kids to College

By Matthew Lynch — November 04, 2016 5 min read
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By Mike Clutter

What do you consider a stable lifestyle? Does it include a job, a roof over your head, and a full belly? Families in outer-east Portland constantly battle the challenges that come with living in a poverty-impacted community including food insecurity, foster care and homelessness. Students often wonder where they will get their next meal or where they will sleep at night—not if they will get their math homework done or if they’ll pass the next vocabulary test.

In the heart of Portland’s Rockwood neighborhood sits Alder Elementary, where approximately 20% of students are homeless, 100% of students are on free or reduced lunch, and more than 60% are English language learners. Our school has consistently ranked in the bottom 15% in the state.

Even in the face of such challenging poverty and language-related barriers, Alder students and staff continue to amaze our community and beat the odds by holding the title of fastest improving school in the Reynolds School District. Test scores over a recent two-year period show that reading proficiency in 3rd grade doubled. Over the same period math proficiency for 4th grade tripled, giving us the number one rate of growth in math among all middle and elementary schools in our district in the last two years.

How did we do it?

“I Have a Dream” Oregon has taken on the challenge of addressing poverty-related systemic challenges by giving hundreds of students what they need to graduate high school, attend college, and become successful citizens. In 2010, Alder Elementary became the first-in-the-nation Dreamer school where every student is a Dreamer and provided with whatever it takes to succeed: mentors, tutoring, after-school programs, college and workplace visits, and more. The goal is for 100 percent of its students to earn a diploma, and for at least 80 percent to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate.

The organization is built on a community mission to open the door to opportunity for these students and give them the tools they need to overcome poverty related barriers to learning and achievement. We track progress towards this goal using two key indicators: improving classroom outcomes and decreasing educational barriers.

Volunteers and Donations Change Lives

For the past 26 years, more than 60 school partners including businesses, colleges, public and private organizations, and individual community members have aimed to create an environment where generations of students from poverty-impacted communities are empowered to graduate from high school, pursue post-secondary education, and become economically independent. This combined effort has led to unprecedented student success. Volunteers, donations, and free services help disadvantaged learners and their families overcome challenges outside the classroom. Last year, volunteers and supporters donated 6,200 hours and $1.75 million to “I Have a Dream” Oregon.

For example, Kurt Kroon, an adult mentor, was paired with Dreamer Marcus in 2012 through a partnership with an organization called Family of Friends. Marcus lived in a rough apartment complex, and had to deal with stressful home life issues that eventually landed him in a school for students with behavioral challenges.

The Marcus I knew outside the classroom blew me away; he was warm, friendly, and very sharp,” said Kroon. “I knew he didn’t belong there. So we made a plan to get him back to mainstream as soon as possible.

Less than a year later, Marcus proved to himself and his teachers that he could succeed in school. He was transitioned back to a mainstream class and soon returned to Alder Elementary. To celebrate, Kroon took him to a G6 Airpark for some “extreme trampoline sports.”

“Even this one celebratory experience could in some small way contribute to Marcus’ belief in his abilities,” said Kroon. “I am honored to watch this amazing person mature and to be that consistent, positive force in his life.”

Forging a Path from Kindergarten to College

Donations by businesses such as Lightspeed Technologies, an “I Have a Dream” Oregon Corporate Partner, are another example of community generosity aimed to help students at Alder Elementary succeed. The company develops audio systems for classrooms that enable every student to clearly hear their teacher’s voice and digital content. In 2014, Lightspeed donated five systems to Alder. Once word about Alder got out to the entire staff, Lightspeed employees outfitted the remaining 14 classrooms through its employee donation program.

Additionally, every year a local college or university sponsors each grade level. In the fall, school officials visit classrooms and talk to students about what their college has to offer. In the spring, the entire class goes on a field trip to the campus so they’re able to get a firsthand view of what campus life is like. By the end of students’ elementary education, they will have been to six college campuses.

It’s all part of the “I Have a Dream” college-to-career pipeline, which starts in kindergarten. The idea is to “plant the seed” early on that Alder students are college bound. No matter how far away it seems, students take pride in, and identify themselves by, their college graduation year. For example, kindergarteners show ownership of being the class of 2032.

Graduation Rates Keep Growing

To ensure the highest success rate possible, Dreamer students are given opportunities, resources, and mentorship through their first two years of post-secondary education. They are also give financial aid support to ensure they have everything they need financially to complete a post-secondary program.

Since 1990, about 1,100 Oregon students have the honor of calling themselves Dreamers, and with the students coming through Alder Elementary, that number is expected to exponentially climb. Past Dreamer classes have graduated at two to three times higher rate than their low-income peers. Thanks to donor support, there has been an increase in the number of Dreamer students on track to graduate. We are pleased to see that the class of 2018 is 76% on track and the class of 2019 is 92% on track. The Alder class of 2017 did not receive services until 5th grade; consequently only 40% are on track to graduate, but we are working with the highest needs students to increase that number!

The “I Have a Dream” Oregon organization and Alder Elementary are all about everyday people taking a step back to help those who need it most. It’s making an impact on not only students at Alder Elementary, but the entire community as well. If we’re going to make sure these kids graduate, move onto college, and get careers, we’re going to have to work together.

Mike Clutter is the principal of Alder Elementary in Portland, OR. He can be reached via email at mclutter@rsd7.net.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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