From The Gresham Outlook
Written by Teresa Carson
Open School East, an alternative school in Gresham, just welcomed the first students into a shiny new building on a community campus that will also include a new Boys & Girls Club.
A college-prep school for students who have struggled to succeed in regular public school, Open School East has taken up residence in a new, warm, light-filled building that reinforces the school’s mission of inspiring students to overcome obstacles and succeed in higher education.
About 65 percent of Open School East students are children of color and about 85 percent live in poverty. East has a middle school partner in Open School North in North Portland. The school says students advance an average of 2.5 grade levels in math and reading in their first year at Open School East.
There is a new leader for the new building in Principal Matt Ross. He strolls though the building and calls out students by name, whether it’s to gently chide a student for running in the hall or compliment another on good work.
Open School East takes a different approach than a traditional, comprehensive high school.
“We have small class sizes, two adults in every class and focus on social justice and wrap around services,” Ross said, adding the school wants to prepare students not just to go to college, but be successful in the college environment.
Open School East has 135 students in grades seven through nine. It will eventually house about 270 students in grades seven through 12, with a grade scheduled to be added every year.
The new building is anchored by a two-story atrium with stadium seating crafted from warm, reclaimed wood. The seating faces a two-story white board wall that can be used as a blackboard, movie screen or backdrop for lectures.
Ross said the atrium seating “allows us to come together as a community.”
Dave Otte, principal with Holst Architecture, Portland, who designed Open School East and the Boys & Girls Club, said, “We wanted to make it open, simple and flexible and to last for years.”
The architecture reinforces the school’s mission. Inspirational quotes punctuate the building, such as one from the late actor, Christopher Reeve: “A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Ross noted, “We’re trying to counter the not-so-motivational messages kids get on social media and from society.”
A large black-and-white portrait of a hero of a social justice movement graces the doorway of each classroom. African-American author James Baldwin is at one doorway, Cesar Chavez adorns another. The school’s white walls and wood are accented with a bright, lime green throughout the building.
The four corners of the structure have study nooks with floor-to-ceiling windows and are furnished with soft, grey ottoman stools. Ross said these nooks can be used for small-group instruction, individual tutoring or small staff meetings.
“The nooks also create visual fissures between the classrooms,” architect Otte said.
Ross said the space is designed to look less like a traditional high school and more like a college, to further Open School’s mission to prepare students for higher education.
The snazzy new building is at 16519 S.E. Stark St. Last year, Open School East operated out of Oliver Elementary School, 15840 S.E. Taylor St., in the Centennial School District with only seventh and eighth grades. The new school has chemistry and biology labs, which are still being set up. Those classes won’t be taught until the students reach high school.
Open School has a long history in the Portland area dating back to the 1970s. It has had multiple iterations and was called Open Meadow School.
Otte said the Boys & Girls Club will look different, but complement Open School East. Both will use brick and warm woods. The single accent paint color at Boys & Girls Club will be an ocher or yellowish color.
The school will borrow the Boys & Girls Club kitchen and gym.
“There will be a symbiotic relationship” between the two buildings and organizations, Otte said.
Open School East draws students from Centennial, Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds, David Douglas, Parkrose and Portland Public school districts. It is organized as a state-designated alternative school and is not a charter school.
“We do school a little differently,” Ross said.
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