The word of the week is “Grit.”
It’s proclaimed in the middle of the school hallway, with definition and examples. (Grit is not saying “I can’t do it;” grit is saying “I can’t do it yet.”) Fridays, there’s a school assembly where teachers praise students who have demonstrated the word of the week; winners get an I Can award, a can of soda.
Of course, at Community Transitional School, grit could be the word of every week.
Last November, the Oregon Department of Education reported more than 22,000 homeless students in the state’s public schools – 1,500 in Portland Public Schools, 10 percent of the student population of the Reynolds district. On a remote corner of Northeast Portland, in a building with four classrooms, Community Transitional School sends its four school buses to downtown shelters and out to Gresham, to make a difference for about 100 kids at a time.
CTS gets a little money from Multnomah County and from the feds’ Title IX program, but after 28 years it’s supported by a wide range of donors and foundations, of grants and volunteers. Pacific University sends volunteers to work with learning problems, and for a Vision Van that comes around twice a year for vision problems and glasses. (There’s also a Tooth Taxi for dental issues.)
People from the Nike employee shop come out to lead phys ed – with a requirement of completed homework – and students from Oregon Episcopal School and the Riverdale district run cereal drives, because homeless kids tend to get hungry.
Explains principal Cheryl Bickle, “It’s just a private school where kids don’t pay tuition,” and which accepts just about everyone who shows up.
Of course, there are differences. Most private schools don’t put together family packages for Christmas, or send home food for spring break. And at CTS, the students, whose home situation tends to change frequently, may attend for a couple of years or a couple of months. The school buses may pick up and drop off a student at changing addresses – at shelters, at relatives’ houses, maybe near a tent where the family lives.
Teachers can’t assign term projects; the enrollment is likely to be different by the end of a term. And because, as Bickle says, “Nobody wants to be the new kid,” with nobody to sit with at lunch, lunchtime seating is assigned.
Still, in whatever time CTS has with a student, it works to make an impression. “You want to empower this group of kids,” says Bickle. “They don’t have to be the victims of bad decisions by other people.”
Specifically, “They need a place where people have real expectations for them.” Homework is a tricky issue for homeless kids, due to logistics as well as the contradiction in terms, but Bickle is firm: “Homework? That’s a life skill. You better figure out how to do it.”
Right after giving her middle school class a writing assignment on whether they admire cleverness or kindness – one girl’s hand shot up to ask, what if she admired both? – Bickle emphasized how much eventual success for her students seemed to hang on kindness and social skills. It’s not just a matter of ease with people; it’s that after inevitable mistakes, people with social skills are more likely to be forgiven and given another chance.
The kids pick up the theme.
“This school is friendly,” says a 12-year-old boy, recently arrived from out of town. “The other schools are all full of bullies.”
Explains an 11-year-old girl about CTS, “It is kind. The kids here, they think about others.” She jumps up to point to her drawing in a wall display of student Valentines; in a parade rank of candy-box hearts, hers stands out, carefully rimmed in flower petals.
When a student leaves Community Transitional School, hopefully for more stable housing, the school’s parting message is clear.
“Don’t forget all the things you learned about yourself,” says Bickle. “And if you find yourself homeless again, call us. We’ll come and get you.”
In our society, we lose kids in so many ways: to homelessness, to hunger, to drugs, to guns, to nobody even noticing that the kid is slipping away.
But sometimes a lot of people come together, and a kid is caught.
Bickle remembers one student, who attended twice, in different stretches of homelessness. The second time, she remembers, he came back a little harder, a little tougher, but he came back.
And some years later, he returned to the school again, married, with a job.
“I just came back,” he explained to Bickle, “because I wanted to tell you I turned out all right.”
That grit can be powerful stuff.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/4/18.