A national civic organization will announce an award Thursday for a growing Portland program for at-risk youth. "Step-Up" is now in its fifth year of helping North Portland eighth graders make it through high school. Its record is virtually impeccable in keeping incoming freshmen from dropping out, so the program has been introduced at two more schools.
Now, leaders with the Pew Partnership for Civic Change are calling Step Up a national model worth replicating. But as Rob Manning reports, Step Up’s leaders favor a “go slow” approach.
The non-profit, Open Meadow, began the Step Up program five years ago to deal with one of the toughest obstacles for at risk teens.
It's now the darling of Suzanne Morse. She's the president of the national civic organization, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.
Suzanne Morse: “We’re delighted with Step Up, we think it’s a great model.”
Step-Up coordinator, Hanif Fazal, says the program was intented to confront a persistent problem in North Portland.
Hanif Fazul: “The primary reason we’ve kind of come into existence is the idea that the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade is the most difficult transition they’re going to deal with their entire school career.”
Open Meadow worked for four years at just one high school – Roosevelt, in North Portland. This year, they started at two more high schools on the eastern edge of the Portland school district.
Verenice Mendoza: “My name is Verenice Mendoza, and I’m a sophomore at Marshall.”
Mendoza started at Marshall High School a year ago, before Step Up expanded to the Southeast Portland campus. She says making the switch from middle school to high school was scary, but her sophomore year has been easier with the program’s help.
Verenice Mendoza: “It has changed a lot, a lot. I remember last year, I would come late to my classes, not doing my homework, I didn’t care about anything, I was thinking that sophomore year, I’m just going to drop out. But then this year, that’s one of my goals to not come late.”
Rob Manning: “Do you think anymore about dropping out?”
Verenice Mendoza: “No.”
Rob Manning: “So you’re going to graduate?”
Verenice Mendoza: “I’m going to graduate high school.”
Mendoza is sort of playing catch-up with the program , since it wasn’t around for her rough freshman year transition.
Ninth grader, Ben Copeland, says he got help with his fears about high school at Step Up’s week-long summer camp. He says it tested his boundaries – like a fear of heights.
Ben Copeland: “Yeah, 60 feet in the air, and you had to go up and pull this lever, and they used metaphors a lot. It symbolized like they used, completing your goals to go through high school. That was fun and really scary, but I did it. It made me realize I could do anything I set my mind to.”
From there, Step Up and Open Meadow leaders say the program depends on strong relationships among students, teachers, and Step Up staff to keep kids connected.
Roosevelt High senior, Sammie Davis, has been with Step-Up since ninth grade. She’s now mentoring younger high schoolers, when they struggle.
Sammie Davis: “A couple of my mentees, they were just having a hard time with their homework, because it was close to the final exams for the year, and they were getting stressed out. So I got some help from Hanif, so I took them to ice cream, and I brought them back and called them down, and they got ready to take their tests.”
Marshall High administrators say they’re surprised to see the positive effect that a few dozen calmer freshmen can have on the overall school culture. Portland school board members have expressed interest in bringing the program to more high schools, but aren’t sure if there’s money in the budget to do that. And Pew Partnership’s president, Suzanne Morse, says Step Up already has a definite national buzz.
Suzanne Morse: “We think that it’s really the crux of a national model. This intensive academic, social, mentoring, leadership type of programming, that all programs and initiatives should take a real strong look. We have very little data about what works to keep kids in school nationally. But Step Up has given us some very, very direct and defineable benchmarks to look at.”
But Open Meadow’s executive director Andrew Mason shies away from the talk of a “national model,” insisting he’d like to see more data.
Andrew Mason: “I don’t think that we know if this is going to work in every community, and quite frankly, our success has been that we have been effective in the communities that we’ve been serving.”
The Step Up program costs roughly $4700 per student, per year. Most of that is public money. Mason says his non-profit is looking at whether and how to expand. It could spread to more high schools, or it could be offered to students of different ages.
Leaders at Open Meadow hope that the increased attention will help them target the right kids, to help keep students in Portland, and elsewhere, from falling through the cracks.