Saturday academy moves onto campus

Saturday Academy, the nonprofit organization that leads middle and high school students into new frontiers of learning, is settled happily into its new home at Portland State.

“We love being on campus,” said Joyce Cresswell, executive director.

It’s not that the old headquarters at the Oregon Graduate Institute were not working. OGI offered a serene suburban setting, although somewhat isolated. Moving to the PSU campus moved the academy into the humming vortex of higher learning in the Portland area. It repositions itself to reach out more effectively to urban and minority students.

The academy moved onto the PSU campus and into the basement of the Extended Studies Building February 11. Today, the academy staff bustles about amid its stacks of files. February classes are still running and applications are piling up for spring term.

Although Saturday Academy is a nonprofit, it is not a charity organization.

“It is a fee-based program,” Cresswell said. “We charge tuition, but we keep our tuition at below our true cost so that we can keep it affordable to the middle class. And we have an active scholarship program that helps underwrite the classes for everybody and waives the fee for low-income kids.”

A glance through the spring catalog of 24 pages lists 92 classes, some already started, some starting as late as June. They are geared to different grade levels for middle school and high school students, some as young as fourth grade, others to high school seniors. Half of the offerings are in science, the other half in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

A distinguishing feature is that classes are small, normally not more than six to 10 students – always a key for Saturday Academy. The classes also differ in duration.

“A typical class would be six weeks for two hours a meeting,” Cresswell said. Some classes would be a one-day workshop, others may be longer than 12 hours total.

“In the summertime, we teach primarily Monday through Friday because kids have all that time,” she said. Even during the school year, classes may not be on Saturday. Any time when regular school is not in session can be Saturday Academy time.

More than half the classes will meet at Portland State. Others will convene at Oregon Graduate Institute in the Beaverton-Hillsboro area, OHSU, Reed College, Portland Community College Sylvania, University of Portland and the Northwest Film Study Center. Single classes will convene at a few other specialized locations.

As might be predicted, many of the classes are aimed specifically at the current enthusiasms of the middle school-high school student. There are numerous sections on animation, game design, website and other computer skills. Cresswell is looking to develop instruction in open source software.

The fine arts are not neglected. The student can be an actor, learn puppetry, compose music, draw and sketch – even learn to play competitive chess.

A glance through the catalog reveals that class costs vary at the academy. Actor’s workshop at PSU, for grades four to six, is one of the least expensive at $65. Animation student and parent workshop at Northwest Film Study Center runs to $295.

“It’s not a free ride,” Cresswell said. “That’s why we have a pretty big scholarship program. Last year we gave about $100,000 in scholarships to kids so they could either take it completely free or take it on a sliding scale basis.”

The academy has a very active advisory board that raises money for scholarships. It also has an honorary board, which lists at least one distinguished alumna of the academy.

She is Katie Harmon, a PSU student and Miss America of 2002. Harmon studied in an academy apprenticeship program in 1997-1998 at Oregon Health and Sciences University.

“Our tuition covers about 75 percent of our true cost,” Cresswell said. Besides the classes, the academy has other specialized programs where the tuition covers even less of the cost.

The Saturday Academy began as the pet project of two Portland School District talented and gifted instructors, Gail Whitney and Jacqueline Jackson. Jackson had one student who was so talented, he felt unchallenged and dropped out of school. She conceived the idea of special classes for any student seeking further challenges, not merely the talented and gifted.

The academy was formed in 1982 and began operation in 1983. Cresswell has been with the program five years and executive director four years.

The growth of the academy has been little short of amazing. When Cresswell started in 1999 the academy had seven programs, most of which were funded by the National Science Foundation. The academy has had nine NSF grants totaling $3.6 million. But the NSF is no longer a factor in the academy’s funding.

“We made a strategic choice,” Cresswell said. “To transition our programs from federally based to locally sustained programs.” This caused the disappearance of some programs for lack of funding. One of Cresswell’s current goals is to redevelop those programs, dropped because they were not self-starters in generating funding. One loss she would like to reclaim was a class in developing inventions.

Today, the Saturday Academy has become more than a source of classes. It has a specialized program called LEAP (Learning Enrichment & Accelerated Pace). The academy has a contract with Portland Public Schools which takes classes out to the schools and serves grades one through eight. LEAP offers classes in English, math, science, technology, social science and art.

“If the kids don’t have a parent that can give them a ride on Saturday morning, a parent that can pay tuition, all that sort of stuff, through this LEAP program we’re able to get rid of all those barriers,” Creswell said. “We can just go to the schools and deliver these classes to the kids in their own neighborhood and their own setting.”

The instructors, Cresswell said, are always professionals in their fields. An architect teaches architecture, a published author teaches writing, a doctor teaches medicine.

“So these kids get connected with the adults who are really doing the thing that the child is the most curious about,” she said. With the small classes, the student gets the opportunity to meet and know the adult and go into the subject matter in a deep way.

Since 1987, the academy has participated in a program started under NSF auspices, the Student Watershed Research Project. Young people are instructed how to go out into their own natural watersheds and do watershed quality analysis. The academy checks the data and feeds it to local watershed planners. Since moving to PSU, the program has been taken over by the Environmental Sciences and Resources department headed by Roy Koch.

Advocacy for Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (AWSEM) is an advocacy program for girls in middle and high school to inspire these girls to pursue careers in the engineering and the sciences. AWSEM clubs meet weekly after school with a science mentor, who is normally a young college woman studying in a science program.

The academy registers the year around. Last year, through the catalog, the academy enrolled 3,600 kids in the metropolitan area. The LEAP program enrolled another 750. The AWSEM program listed 300 girls.

About 450 high school students annually compete for about 150 positions in the academy’s ASE program (Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering.) These offer eight-week summer apprenticeships in professional, scientific or engineering environments to high schoolers through junior level.

The connection between PSU and the Saturday Academy goes back to 2001. Before then the academy was strictly OGI based. When OGI merged with OHSU, the academy thought it would be a good opportunity to expand its base of whom it collaborated with. PSU President Daniel Bernstine and OGI talked with OHSU about a joint alignment.