Growing by leaps and bounds

Who says Portland State doesn’t have the moxie to attract quality professors?

Perhaps the rule is proved by the exception of Adam Reid, one of Portland State’s most visionary professors, who is now intimately involved in revolutionizing post-secondary education.

Reid, who is also a professor in the University Studies department and holds a master’s degree from Stanford, is spearheading the opening of a new charter school in North Portland, Leadership and Entrepreneurship High, which will be starting a new class this August. The school has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, and further funding from the Oregon Department of Education to the tune of $350,000.

A charter school, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is a public school run by a nonprofit organization. It is distinct from an alternative, “focus” or voucher school inasmuch as it is required to meet all state standards and is accountable to the district. A charter school must be approved, but is not governed by, the school district – it is the model with maximum flexibility and maximum accountability.

Reid and his partner, Reese Lord, are hoping to fill a gap created by retention problems in the public school system. Last year alone some 150 students dropped out of public high schools, and over 1,400 students dropped out of middle and high schools in the greater Portland area. Additionally, there are over 2,500 home-schooled students in the area, and 2,700 students enrolled in private schools.

In a recent conversation, Reid made it clear that his goal was to “help the public education system.” Rather than trying to pull students out of public schools – which would drain funds – Reid and his team are merely trying to provide an alternative for underserved or underachieving students who are not otherwise engaged in secondary education.

The plan to do this includes a unique curriculum, small classrooms with a 26:1 student-teacher ratio and an extended school year featuring 9-5 classes. LEP High will feature the equivalent of an extra 26 school days, in a district that already sports one of the lowest numbers of school days in the nation. The curriculum focuses on interdisciplinary studies, hands-on and community projects, civic engagement and college preparatory material that will emphasize real-world skill development, not just teaching to the test. At the same time, the grant application materials for LEP High feature extensive explanations of how the school’s curriculum will prepare students to meet and exceed state standards, including certificates of initial mastery (CIM) and certificates of advanced mastery (CAM), and comply with No Child Left Behind and similar education legislation.

It’s clear that some sort of curricular intervention is needed in public education when half of students at the state and national levels can’t meet established benchmarks, and one-third of students are dropping out.

LEP High’s curriculum integrates the best aspects of charter and alternative programs such as Leadership and Aspire, Open Meadows, KIPP and our own University Studies program. Reid’s work at Stanford has drawn on these and similar programs, including a number of highly successful charter schools in California, and the team assembled has extensive experience in nonprofit management, teaching, and curriculum design and change.

The charter application for LEP High is unique in that it was passed by a 5-2 vote by the school board, and received all recommendations for approval at the subcommittee level (which is rare in Portland Public Schools history). The Portland city commissioner and the mayor’s office also support it.

So with his deep involvement in this new school concept, is Adam Reid planning on leaving Portland State? Not likely, according to a recent conversation. Although it’s not totally up to him, as far as he’s concerned he plans to stay on teaching in the UNST program. His loyalty is perhaps unsurprising considering his long history at Portland State (he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and was a Student Leader for Service and University Studies mentor), but all the more impressive considering the current challenges facing the UNST program and Portland State in general.

It is my firm belief that many of the critiques of the UNST program stem from the fact that students coming into the program fresh from high school have no previous exposure to an interdisciplinary, project-based learning system. Adam Reid is going right to the heart of this issue with LEP High, and his commitment to doing so is a credit to Portland State and, perhaps, the best possible investment in it’s future continued success.