Oregon Supreme Court Associate Justice Adrienne C. Nelson traded her judge's robes for a neon yellow construction safety vest and hard hat at the June 27 kick off for a high school renovation project in Happy Valley.
Armed with a golden shovel, Nelson joined students and North Clackamas School District officials in tossing dirt to signal the start of work on the high school building that will eventually carry her name.
Slated for completion in time for the 2021 school year, the Adrienne C. Nelson High School is one of several schools the district is building or renovating as a result of a construction bond passed by voters in November 2016.
The new Happy Valley high school will result from a conversion of the building that previously served as Rock Creek Middle School on Parklane Drive. The two-year project will bring new, updated classrooms, a counseling center and a health center. The high school also will boast a performing arts center, a full auditorium and theater, a new stadium, and track and baseball fields. The project was designed by Bora Architects. Lease Crutcher Lewis is handling the conversion.
Nelson, who made headlines last year when she became the first African American to be appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court, applauded community members for finding their way through controversy that rose over choosing a name for the new school.
The North Clackamas School Board in May 2018, after polling the community for suggestions for a name for the school, voted 4-3 to against attaching Nelson's name to the building.
One year later, after much public discussion and a change in the school board make-up, members voted 5-2 in favor of naming the school after Nelson. Two other notable African American Oregonians — James DePriest, who served as the conductor of the Oregon Symphony for more than two decades, and Mercedes Deiz, the first black woman to practice law in Oregon and to serve as a district court judge and be elected as a county circuit court judge — also were considered.
Even after Nelson's name was selected, Happy Valley residents continued to debate the choice on the school district's Facebook page.
Nelson is no stranger to being at the center of controversy. As a senior ready to graduate in 1985 from Gurdon High School in Arkansas, where she grew up, her outstanding academic record placed her at the top of her class. When school administrators decided a white student with a lower grade-point average would receive the honor instead, Nelson's mother successfully sued the school district to have her daughter be recognized as valedictorian.
Nelson went on to receive a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1993. She moved to Oregon and worked in private practice and public law. In 2006, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed her to serve as a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, a position she won re-election to in 2012. Last year, Gov. Kate Brown appointed Nelson to serve on the state's Supreme Court.
At the high school ground breaking ceremony, Nelson urged the crowd to celebrate the fact that the high school would be "a place where students know they can be loved" but also acknowledged the naming battle that came before.
"We have to remember everything … not just the pretty parts, because it makes us who we are," Nelson said.
Brianna Gibson, vice president of the black student union at Clackamas High School, was one of those who publicly voiced their support for naming the school after Nelson. Gibson wrote a letter explaining why she felt the move was the right one and the correspondence ended up garnering support — and signatures — from several of her classmates.
"I was a little nervous (at the time) that people would react badly, but I was overwhelmed with support," Gibson recalled.
Kaylee Hicks, a graduating senior who spent the past school year as president of Clackamas High School's black student union, said the growing diversity among the students at schools in Happy Valley is a sign that the new high school needs to honor — and represent — the changing community.
As a member of a student advisory group providing input to the district superintendent, Hicks was well aware of the discussion — and contention — around the naming of the school. She reminded the crowd gathered for the ground-breaking ceremony that sometimes good things can result from conflict.
"Even with a lot of controversy and disagreement … I think this has given us something we are all proud of," Hicks, said.
"I think it's truly given our community an opportunity to say we accept everyone," she added.
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