A field trip to Colorado among Centennial Park School offerings.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Centennial Park School students Ayla Harrett, Lupita Espinoza, Jose Ruiz-Valentine, Michael Braithwait and Skyler Grace. Ten students from Centennial Park School traveled to Cortez, Colo., to the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for a week of exploration and archeological excavation and then for a trip to nearby Mesa Verde, the spectacular ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Ayla Harrett said one of the hikes at Mesa Verde was scary, but the trip was life changing. Student Ayla Harrett, 17, said the hike up to the Mesa Verde Balcony House was “a scary hike, but cool.” Michael Braithwait, 17, admitted he had to conquer his fear of heights to make the climb up a huge ladder to the Balcony House, “I felt so good and so accomplished. I felt like ‘I’m the man.’”

Harrett, who had never been on an airplane or out of the Pacific Northwest, called the trip “something I’ll never forget.” She also said the journey brought the 10 lucky students closer together. “It was like a team-building experience.”

This “field trip” is just one of many ways Centennial Park School hooks its sometimes hard-to-reach students into the school and their own educations. When not sending students on enlightening physical journeys, the school strives to create a sense of connection and community through small classes, extracurricular activities and teachers and staff who work closely with students and know them well.

Centennial Park, a 170-student alternative school primarily for Centennial district middle and high school students, has been housed in an unassuming, low-slung former church at 176th near Rockwood Central Park for the 22 years since its founding.

It’s just one of several alternative schools in the area catering to students struggling to succeed at typical public schools. For example, Reynolds School District has the Reynolds Learning Academy, while other local options include Rosemary Anderson High School East and the new Open School East.

Centennial Park and its students have a lot to be proud of, because many turn their struggles into success. A group of students shared their stories of feeling alienated and ignored at big, comprehensive high schools. They often come to Centennial Park with few credits and such low grade point averages they have virtually no hope of graduating.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - This U.S. National Parks photo shows tourists climbing the steep ladder at Mesa Verde, the ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people near Cortez, Colo. Tailored learning

Students come to Centennial Park for a variety of reasons, Principal Ajai Huja said. Some have attendance issues or anxiety or behavioral problems.

“A large majority of students here have experienced significant trauma — family violence, poverty” or moving frequently, he said.

Braithwait said when he dropped out of his regular high school, his GPA “was in the 1.5 to 2.0 range.” He described problems with anxiety and depression that eventually led him to stop going to school altogether, noting that “nobody noticed for three months.” Another student joked that “Here, if you are in the bathroom too long, somebody comes in to see if you are OK.” Braithwait is now on the honor roll and will graduate next spring.

Lupita Espinoza, 18, said she was not getting the help she needed to succeed at her high school. Despite saying she loves school, her grades were poor. She started skipping school, and after some meetings with counselors and staff ended up at Centennial Park.

She now has a 3.5 GPA, will get a diploma this school year and is generally bubbling over with big plans for the future.

“I would have never graduated if I hadn’t come here,” she said, as other students nodded in agreement.

Skyler Grace, 18, said his former school was not adhering to his Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a difficulty he has processing information.

“This school respects the IEP. I came here and they didn’t even need to study the plan. They just said, ‘What will you need to do well at math?’ And they just do it.”

At 15 years-old, Jose Ruiz-Valentine, also is on track to graduate. Inspired by Centennial Park Principal Huja, Ruiz-Valentine said he wants to become a teacher.

Centennial Park is transforming the way it brings youths to the school. Students formerly were referred to CPS by the high school as juniors or seniors when they were already badly off track to graduate.

The Centennial district now employs an early warning system that looks at students who are faltering as early as seventh grade.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Centennial Park Principal Ajai Huja sits in an old church pew in the lobby of Centennial Park School.“We’re moving some of our resources to a prevention model,” Huja said. “We give them a choice to enroll. Having the kids come here only by referral doesn’t make sense.”

Because these are not traditional students, traditional measures of success don’t apply, Huja said.

Indeed, the school’s standardized test scores are dismal. But instead of looking at state test scores, Centennial Park looks at skill growth, acceptable attendance and getting the credits necessary to graduate from school.

“We’re understanding that some kids aren’t going to graduate on time,” he said.

Still, Centennial Park had a 17 percent improvement in its five-year completion rate last year, its highest ever.

Smaller is better

The key to student success at Centennial Park is the relationships students build with the staff, made possible by the small size of the school and its classes. That “is the only thing that works for these students,” Huja said. “This environment is a place where someone knows these students and connects with them.”

Some of the CPS students come from David Douglas High School, the state’s largest, with more than 3,200 students. Every student interviewed talked extensively about how well the teachers know them, track their progress carefully and notice and inquire if a student seems to be having an off day.

Huja, clearly affable and passionate about his mission, is 41 years old and sports a pony tail. He has been at the school for seven years, serving as its principal for four. He has worked with students out of the mainstream throughout his 18-year education career. Because the school and staff are so small, “I’m also the counselor and the instructional coach,” he laughed.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Student Michael Braithwait said the field trip to Cortez, Colo., built his confidence in his abilities. The school offers a variety of electives on Wednesday afternoons including a “friendtorship” art class at Portland State University with college art students. There is a hiking class and other offerings “to get kids out in the community,” Huja said.

Huja took five students to training sessions at the Oregon Center for Educational Equity on how schools can be more inclusive, sessions usually reserved for educators.

The students organize a prom every May.

“That was the first dance I’ve ever been to,” Braithwait said. Centennial Park recently added a soccer and volleyball team and has fielded a basketball team for several years.

But for the 10 students, the Colorado trip may be the most memorable thing. Skyler Grace said at first the students didn’t see much pottery or other artifacts at the dig site.

“But once our eyes got trained, we saw it everywhere,” he said, “even walking along the paths.”

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Skyler Grace, a senior at Centennial Park School, shows off a shart of pottery that he unearthed at a school archaeological dig in Cortez, Colo.

Want to help?

Centennial Park, more than some other schools, struggles to pay for its prom, the Crown Canyon and other field trips, supplies and activities. The school welcomes donations, and Principal Ajai Huja spends some of his time fundraising. To help, call the office at 503-762-3202 or drop a check in the mail to 17630 S.E. Main St., Portland, 97233.

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