28 Jun

Its address isn’t where Jason Lee School is coming from

Through the bouncy castles and the water balloon slingshot, through the nine-year-olds tightly clutching stretches of food tickets, walked the two teen-age girls, one African American, one with hair a shade of blue that you suspected might not be natural.
Susan Kosmala was delighted to see them.

“Alumni,” the assistant principal of Jason Lee School observed happily. “Notice how many high school students are here.

“This is a community event, not a school event.”

What it was literally was the Jason Lee Carnival, out at Northeast 92nd and Halsey, in a part of Portland that can often seem as municipal afterthought. In this K-8 school’s community, deep-blue hair can seem the least diverse aspect; the school’s enrollment is a mix of Hispanic, black, Vietnamese and white, 30 percent English learners, 11 percent immigrant, including some recent refugees from Africa who might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder issues.

It’s a Title I school, a heavily low-income school, with all the accompanying problems of achievement levels and of trying to reach kids who might move to a different school next year.

But on this warm July evening, Jason Lee has drawn hundreds and hundreds of locals spread across its field and parking lot, with toddler care provided in the gym, a crowd with the demographic diversity of a census spreadsheet. To the PTA people who put it all together, it’s not just a school carnival, it’s a statement – a statement about determination in a challenging place.

“We’re about 80 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” says parent April Epperson, looking around at the crowd with satisfaction. “When you look at that, and look at this…”

The demographic requires other commitments. A Friday afternoon backpack program, assisted by City Bible Church, provides weekend food for 32 kids identified by teachers, and there’s a waiting list; for next year the school hopes to get to 40. Monday, a summer lunch program open to the community starts, to run to mid-August. At the end of that month, a back-to-school barbecue will issue each student a backpack of school supplies, provided by Moda.

Still, there’s a sense that downtown can be a long ways away.

“Portland is the city that works for the old trolley town,” says Michael Botter, who has two kids and a great deal of skin in Jason Lee. “The trolley tracks ended at 60th. East of 60th, the city doesn’t have any idea what to do with us.”

To Botter, it’s reflected in situations like Northeast 92nd, a sizable street where the sidewalks give out not very far along the walk home, a situation he calls “a death trap.
“Kudos for Commissioner (Steve) Novick, he came out here,” recalled Botter, “but he said, ‘Guys, I don’t have $7 million for you.’”

Len Reed, the first-year principal at Jason Lee, missed part of the carnival; it took her a while to dry out after 20 minutes in the dunk tank. Then again, it may have been no tougher than the time earlier this year when, to help move a food drive, she let students duct-tape her to a wall.

Coming back to the Northwest after teaching in Southern California, Reed’s image of Portland didn’t extend to the checkerboard ethnicity she’s found at Jason Lee. She sees it as one of the strengths of the place, along with the community connections that run out over the schoolyard boundaries.

It all creates a particular experience. There are certainly shortfalls she finds at Jason Lee – as an old K-5 school anointed to K-8 level, it’s still closer to K-5 levels in playground and library, and it’s short on arts support – but there are other elements.

“We focus not only on whether the kids are happy and willing to meet the challenge,” she says, “but on what we call grit.”

It’s an ingredient native to the neighborhood. And with its high degree of diversity, says her assistant principal Susan Kosmala, “Our kids are prepared to go out into the world the way it looks.”

Precisely at 7 p.m. on the evening of the carnival, coming through the entrance to the field is a 10-person marching drum corps – arranged through a friend of a friend – twirling sticks and banging skins with a stone-faced intensity suggesting it was marching not through a field next to an overcrowded K-8 but in the next day’s Grand Floral Parade. The drummers expressed all the spirit of the rest of the carnival, plus uniforms.

“You cross 82nd Avenue, and there’s a stereotype of this neighborhood,” said Kosmala.

“But that’s not the people who live here.”

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/14/15.

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