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Middle College partnership renaissance continues at nearby Jefferson High School
Story by Abe Proctor. Photos by James Hill.
Little by little, the Middle College Program at Jefferson High School is changing the destinies of its students – and through them, the destiny of its neighborhood.
Recently released statistics from the Oregon Department of Education show that, for the second consecutive year, Jefferson students are graduating at a rate that rivals the most prestigious high schools in the state. Jefferson’s Class of 2016 graduated 84 percent of its students in four years, up from 80 percent for the Class of 2015. This again places Jefferson well above the PPS district-wide rate of 75 percent, as well as the statewide rate, which is also 75 percent.
Students from all demographic groups showed an increase. Moreover, students from traditionally underserved backgrounds posted a graduation rate of 88 percent, up from 76 percent in 2015.
Clearly, these figures are good news for Jefferson which, amid declining enrollment, was a strong candidate for closure only a few years ago. They’re also a validation of sorts for Portland Public Schools, Portland Community College, and Self-Enhancement Inc., the three community partners who decided to go all-in at Jefferson with the Middle College model.
“These figures show that the community’s decision to place its faith in Jefferson was the right one,” said Karin Edwards, Cascade Campus president. “This is what community partnership and working together for the common good produces. The success of these students already demonstrates a strong return on investment, and is something that will resonate in this neighborhood for generations.”
Middle College History
The Middle College began in the early 2000s as a federal grant-funded program for Jefferson students who were interested in getting an early start with their college-level studies. As an opt-in program, it attracted small numbers of the sort of students one might expect – smart, academically savvy, and with plans to continue their education after high school. They would spend the bulk of their time at Jefferson, and take a class or two each term across the street at the Cascade Campus of PCC.
And they did well. Very well. Faculty and staff at both Jefferson and Cascade began to take notice, and as the program’s grant funds were running low, they looked for ways to keep it going. In the late 2000s, both Portland Public Schools and PCC decided to make an investment in the program’s future; a full-time program coordinator was hired, and a permanent Middle College office was established at Cascade. The program began to recruit more aggressively, seeking to expand beyond its traditional cadre of ambitious, self-motivated students and reach into the more mainstream student body at Jefferson, Oregon’s only majority African-American high school.
“We had been getting ‘the good kids’ pretty much exclusively,” recalled Damon Hickok, the Middle College Coordinator, “students who excelled in the classroom and had already decided that college was in their future if they could swing it. Now, we were reaching students who maybe thought that they couldn’t hack it in a college class, or who thought that college just wasn’t in the cards for them.”
Because the program covered the price of PCC tuition, books, and fees, one of the principal barriers to entry into college – cost – was eliminated. And because Middle College students were considered to be fully-fledged PCC students as well, they were able to avail themselves of PCC’s extensive web of student support services, and Middle College staff were able to help them navigate the college admissions and registration processes.
It paid off. Students who were enrolled in the Middle College showed improved academic performance, in both their high school and PCC classes.
And something else was created, something intangible – belief. For many students from underrepresented backgrounds, college could be an unattainable dream; something reserved for students with privilege, with connections, with means. But when students in the Middle College found themselves in college classes, alongside other college students, they began to believe that maybe college was within their reach after all.
“The Middle College really helped me to gain the confidence I needed to succeed academically,” said Gabriel Baltzell, a senior at Jefferson. “It’s allowed me to sample a variety of subjects and possible career paths, which has helped me to decide what I want from my future.”
But despite the success of the Middle College program, Jefferson’s overall enrollment was still falling. The school was in danger of shutting its doors and permanently closing what had been a cornerstone of neighborhood life for more than a century. Amid community cries to keep the venerable North Portland landmark open, Portland Public Schools decided to try something new. In 2011, starting with the freshman class – the eventual Class of 2015 – the Middle College program was expanded to encompass every student at Jefferson.
This new model based its ongoing success on the strengths of three primary partners – Portland Public Schools, PCC, and Self-Enhancement Inc., a neighborhood educational nonprofit with a proven record of supporting students in the area for years. The three partners spent the summer of 2011 reconfiguring the ninth- and 10th-grade curricula at Jefferson into a rigorous program of college-preparatory instruction, with the goal of ensuring that every Jefferson student would be ready to begin taking college classes at the Cascade Campus starting in their junior year.
The results – particularly in terms of graduation rates — speak for themselves. Every Jefferson student can now expect to graduate from high school having already earned between 12 and 45 transferable college credits, all for free. More ambitious students can earn as much as an associate’s degree before they’re done with high school. And while admission is prioritized for students from the neighborhood, for the first time in memory, students from other parts of town are queuing up for the privilege of attending Jefferson.
Four-year colleges and universities in the region started to take notice as well. Scholarship agreements with the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, and Portland State University enable Pell Grant-eligible students in the Middle College to continue their studies through a bachelor’s degree at little or no cost. Single scholarships also are available each year from Willamette University, Pacific University, and Warner-Pacific College.“It’s a game-changer,” Hickok said of the effect that the Middle College is having on Jefferson and the neighborhood. “We have a huge amount of confidence in what our kids can do, and we’ve seen them do it for awhile now. They are ready for college, they’re succeeding in college, and they’re going to thrive wherever they go. The sky’s the limit for these kids, really.”