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Teacher makes high school modernization part of curriculum

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Project Manager Nate Buddress of Lease Crutcher Lewis (pointing) leads a group of Roosevelt students through the former auditorium, which soon will be the library.Students slogged through the active construction site at Roosevelt High School on a recent Thursday, over damp gravel and muddy plywood walkways as drips of water fell from their hardhats.

The construction manager warned them to look out for the heavy machinery heard in the distance — cranes and bulldozers — as they toured the gutted remains of brick buildings covered in caution tape and dust.

Roosevelt High School in North Portland is undergoing modernization, thanks to the $482 million Portland Public Schools bond measure voters approved in 2012.

Some buildings were torn down for replacement, while others are being remodeled.

And despite the exposed steel I-beams, the site is still as much a place for learning as it was when buildings stood on it, full of desks and chairs.

Second-year Roosevelt teacher James Duckworth has made it a classroom.

“My biggest thing is just trying to introduce them to as many different trades as possible through the class,” says Duckworth, 30.

“I think a lot of students need and excel at more hands-on stuff. There are plenty of really amazing jobs through that line of work where you don’t necessarily need to go to college to be able to support yourself and support a family on an honest and worthwhile job.”

Separate from his duties as an art instructor, Duckworth teaches 16 Roosevelt students about assorted trades in his Introduction to Construction class — how to square a wall, how to install insulation for a chilly Portland winter; how to make a blueprint come to life.

Duckworth created the class this year, officially designated a career and technical education (CTE) course by PPS, and hopes to continue it after the modernization is finished.

Duckworth’s hands-on approach reflects a districtwide shift by PPS to engage more students with CTE classes, and provide clearer paths to careers.

“I think it’ll be good,” says Hayley Preciso, a Roosevelt senior in Duckworth’s class. “We used to have a lot of classes like that, but as funding got shorter we lost a lot of those, like our shop class. Lots of kids learn differently, so we need a variety of classes for students.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - James Duckworth's Introduction to Construction class checks out the former stairwell, which has been gutted as part of the Roosevelt modernization.

STEM space controversy

Phase 1 of the modernization, which currently is underway on roughly half of the campus, started last spring and is expected to be done next fall. During Phase 2, students will shift over to the modernized half of campus while the older section is remodeled, with a tentative completion date of fall 2017.

The $92 million project — part of the district’s long-term effort to upgrade and modernize its facilities — is intended to boost student performance and graduation rates at Roosevelt.

In 2010, after the school posted a four-year graduation rate of 39 percent, the federal government gave Roosevelt a “turnaround” grant of $7.7 million over three years, as part of an effort to improve Oregon’s 10 worst-performing schools.

In 2013, after the three separate academies on Roosevelt’s campus were reunited back into a single school, the four-year graduation rate had improved to 64 percent, but was still below the PPS average of 80 percent.

Last year, the Roosevelt graduation rate dropped down to 53 percent compared to a districtwide high school average of 70 percent.

After the remodel is finished, Roosevelt will have 5,359 square feet of STEM space, dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math instruction.

STEM spaces, which overlap with CTE classes, are designed to encourage preparation for specific careers through hands-on experience, giving students the practical skills to succeed after high school.

Many, however, have criticized PPS for the modernized Roosevelt STEM lab designs, which, collectively, are smaller than the 9,000-square-foot STEM lab being built at Franklin High School, also under construction. Roosevelt has an enrollment of 947 students this year, compared with Franklin’s 1,552.

Roosevelt also has 70 percent students of color, compared with 39 percent at Franklin.

Community activist Donna Cohen filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights over the configuration of STEM space at Roosevelt, although it was rejected.

Community groups worry that Roosevelt’s students will not only be at a disadvantage with smaller STEM spaces, but by the fact that their labs occupy different parts of the campus, compared to the contiguous space being built at Franklin. Many believe that the split will make it difficult for students to work on projects seamlessly.

Keeping community intact

Despite the controversy surrounding the STEM labs, construction and school continue as planned.

Franklin’s students have been relocated to the Marshall Campus in Southeast Portland for the duration of their two-year remodel, but Roosevelt’s students are staying put.

Logistically, Lease Crutcher Lewis (the construction company on site) has had to adjust to the students still occupying the active half of campus.

“We can’t be jackhammering something right outside of a window where there’s a class,” says Nate Buddress, Lease Crutcher Lewis project manager. “There’s obviously critical infrastructure that goes into the existing school that we have to constantly pay attention to to make sure we don’t hit a water line or something.”

The construction team, which has remodeled many other schools with students present, also has been taking advantage of weekends and holidays to work on the school while it’s empty.

Still, the active work has been disruptive for some.

“Sometimes the tractors and everything get kind of loud,” says Preciso, the senior in Duckworth’s class. “Especially in the basement classes in the main building, like the ground is shaking, or there’s really loud bangs outside.”

Although the active construction may be a burden, Preciso is glad she isn’t being moved to another school: “It makes getting to and from school less complicated. It’s kind of hard to focus sometimes with the noises and stuff, but I would rather stay on our campus than go to another school.”

Duckworth agrees. “A big part of high school is building that community,” he says. “I think a building has a lot to do with having that community.”

There’s also a sort of appeal in watching the buildings rise a little higher out of the ground day after day, instead of seeing the entire end product two years later.

“Especially when a lot of our students are a bit disenfranchised, or marginalized, to be able to see these people working really hard to provide something for them that they haven’t had before, I think goes a long way,” Duckworth says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Roosevelt senior Hayley Preciso, right, watches a construction manager explain how the walls are being laid on the north part of campus. Students occupy the south part of campus during Phase 1 of the construction.

Making it relevant

Under a light drizzle, Duckworth’s students gathered where Roosevelt’s tennis courts were last year, on the north side of campus. Now there’s a hole in the ground full of rebar and wood framing, soon to be an orchestra pit.

Project manager Buddress explained to the students what the construction crew was doing in the pit step by step, but Duckworth prodded him for more details.

“How did you guys set the rebar?” Duckworth asks. “And why is pouring concrete for a radial wall different from pouring for a straight one?”

Duckworth pulls lessons from the busy ecosystem of specialists at the construction site to highlight them as people of skill, not necessarily just brawn.

“There just seems to be sort of a stigma around the trades, like you don’t have to be smart to be able to frame a house,” he says. “And the truth is, if you’re going out and framing a wall, if you want to make it square, you have to use the Pythagorean theorem. I mean, not too many accountants use that kind of math in a regular day.”

Duckworth appreciates that his students get to explore the trades by witnessing each one separately.

A student may find nothing of interest in learning how to wire a high school gym, but might be intrigued by how ornate wooden framing is preserved amid seismic upgrades.

“And then you spend significant time doing it and realize that, yeah, this is still something that I want to do,” Duckworth says.

Duckworth’s own experience with construction began with his time in the U.S. Army, when he spent nine years as a heavy equipment mechanic.

Afterward he got his master’s degree in education, then began working for Habitat for Humanity. For two and a half years, he was on site in Portland teaching volunteers how to build houses.

Before that, in Great Falls, Mont., he took wood shop from seventh grade onward. The hands-on approach engaged him when conventional classes didn’t.

“That’s one of the things that kept me in high school; I had something that I could actually go and do,” he says. “I read a tape measure, I learned how to do math, and I worked on my spatial reasoning. Engagement is a huge thing. And a lot of these kids just don’t care and don’t see the relevance behind a lot of what they’re learning about in school.”

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