At United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, we have a simple, ambitious vision—to make our home a better place for everyone.
We bring our leadership, expertise and resources together throughout our region to change the education, health and economic outcomes for kids in low-income families. We can break the cycles that trap children in poverty and move children
and families toward better lives.
On a Tuesday morning visit to Mt. Scott Learning Centers
(MSLC), there was a palpable sense of community. One of the first things I
noticed - besides the bright purple façade of the building - was that the
administrative and dean’s offices had full-window walls, creating an open
environment. As we toured the school, students approached our tour guide, MSLC Transitions
Manager Joshua Mead, asking to speak with him later. In the lunchroom, students
and teachers talked animatedly in small groups.Voices of teachers starting class
spilled out of classroom doors left ajar. Students en route to class bustled
past us with quick smiles to Mead. The hallways were lined with framed
photographs documenting graduations, school events and sports teams. If I could
sum up my first impression in three words it would be: energy, enthusiasm and
MSLC has become a known leader in the Portland community for
providing accredited alternative education for at-risk youth. A majority of students
who attend MSLC are categorized as “academic priority,” meaning they had poor
attendance records, low benchmark scores on the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge
and Skills, or were failing core courses and in danger of not graduating high
school. More than 70 percent are low-income. Yet, if you dig deeper into why these students are at-risk, it
becomes clear that many different roads led to this path. For varying reasons these
students were all struggling in a conventional schooling environment and needed
more one-on-one attention and a more flexible approach.
An unprecedented number of students graduated from MSLC this year!
MSLC has been able to transform chronically disengaged
students by establishing positive adult relationships. Class sizes are at a
maximum of 20 students, allowing a richer curriculum and closer student-teacher
relationships. The school’s core teachers hold weekly small group advisory sessions
for students. From the time I spent there, it was clear that the staff’s
dedication to their students extended far beyond programming. Likewise, the students possess a strong
loyalty to the school because they selected MSLC and are choosing to make the
effort to graduate high school. This paralleled commitment fuels the staff’s
desire to constantly improve the organization’s ability to serve the needs of
MSLC received a $97,000 grant from United Way of the
Columbia-Willamette’s 2012-13 grant cycle because MSLC’s goals for improving
its school were closely aligned with United Way’s education impact areas of
high school completion and students’ successful transition to continuing
education. MSLC used the grant money to enhance the Transitions
Program and to develop the Career Foundations class. These classes directly address the growing need to help students
prepare for their transition post-graduation and that some students need
personalized assistance in planning their credits for high school completion.
The Career Foundations class, an elective targeted for younger
students, is designed to give students the tools, analytical skills and
encouragement to plan for their future career options. The course supplements the Transitions
Program, a class designed for seniors’ transition out of high school, and gives
the students a comprehensive plan of action for their future. Students conduct
market research on their top career choice and backup career choice. At the end
of the quarter, every student presents the research conducted on their top two
The grant also assisted in the development of intensive case
management services for 25 students within the Transitions Program. The
students receive support to identify credits needed for graduation and get referrals
for credit retrieval. They also attend career classes, receive support in
career planning and personalized mentorship. All 15 seniors in United Way’s case management program will
successfully graduate and receive their diploma June 2013.
Many students of MSLC are the first in their family to
consider college. Thus, another emphasis at MSLC is to increase awareness and
knowledge of college.In January, the school hosted
a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Night for students and their
families to get information and assistance in filling out FAFSA applications.
Mead spearheaded this idea when he realized that many families do not have the resources
to complete the complicated application; thus students were missing out on an
opportunity to receive funding for post-secondary education. The event proved
hugely successful with around 30 families attending. Most notably, there was a
significant increase in the number of students receiving scholarships. A huge
part of this can be attributed to the development of the case management
program, new opportunities for career explorative classes and family outreach
events such as FAFSA night. To highlight
the success of such programs, all 15 case managed youth applied for FAFSA and
will receive a Pell Grant and 10 of the 15 won additional scholarships.
In the past, MSLC graduated 17-19 students each year. This year, the number of students who are
graduating has almost doubled to 31 students. MSLC credits a large part of this
success to the support provided by the Transitions Program case management’s increased
focus on ensuring that students attain the credits they need to graduate and the
Career Foundations class’ emphasis on planning early for the future. These
services are clearly spilling over to other students as reflected by the
increased graduation rates.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job has always been
watching ourstudents graduate,” said Mead.
“I can now add that seeing my students realize college is an accessible
option is another extremely rewarding part of my work. Their sense of
accomplishment and pride is very moving.”