Portland immigrant Abel Getachew graduates, leads others toward success
This story has been updated.
Abel Getachew, about to start college at Georgetown University, is going places.
Statistically, that was very unlikely. Getachew knows that and he wants to help ease the path for more students like him. As graduation day approaches for many Portland high schoolers, this young man is working in his own community to get one of the hardest-to-graduate groups — immigrants and refugees — across the finish line.
Now a resident of Northeast Portland, Getachew was born in Asella, Ethiopia, a small, poverty-stricken town a world away.
"We didn't have 10 cents to buy water," Getachew says.
One day, in 2007, his mom went out for groceries and didn't come back. He later learned that she had an opportunity to go to America but didn't want to worry him. Many of his relatives had already fled the country to a Kenyan refugee camp due to religious persecution. Getachew felt abandoned as he readjusted to life with his little brother at an aunt's house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
Fortunately, he was reunited with his mom on May 8, 2012. He started his new life in Portland during the summer school break. At first, things were great.
Then seventh grade started at George Middle School.
"The teacher was talking really fast," Getachew says. "I couldn't keep up ... and sometimes I felt excluded from the school environment. I often was crying and begged my mom to let me stay home."
She didn't, and he struggled a lot to keep up with peers. His family didn't even have enough money for food or clothing.
This is where too many modern immigrant and refugee stories stay. There are no clear statistics on immigrant and refugee K-12 outcomes, but state Department of Education data show only 54 percent of Oregon students who are still learning English in high school graduate. Only students who are homeless in the state have a worse graduation rate as a group — 50 percent.
In Portland Public Schools, the rate for high school English learners is better. The district gets 63.4 percent of these students to the finish line. The only group that struggles more in PPS, in a sad sort of irony, are those whose families have been in America the longest: American Indians and Alaskan Natives, at 53 percent.
Getachew is one of the lucky ones. He will graduate June 9 from De La Salle North Catholic High School, a private school in North Portland, with honors and multiple scholarships to attend Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Once a little boy in Africa who watched his friend with a treatable heart condition struggle to run, Getachew now has his sights set on being a top U.S.-trained pediatric heart surgeon.
It would be enough to stop there, but Getachew is no ordinary 18-year-old.
In partnership with the Portland-based Refugee Center Online, Getachew has created a not-for-profit organization called Hope for a Bright Future, with several initiatives to help immigrant and refugee children succeed.
He started by collecting school supplies — even going door-to-door in neighborhoods — and so far has provided school supplies to more than 200 students.
He has made motivational and instructional videos for students and teachers that are used around the country, such as "10 tips to Integrate in the U.S. School System Successfully," which is viewable on his website, HopeForABrightFuture.org.
He is now working to raise $5,000 to fund tutors to help 20 refugee and immigrant students with their essays or other school work for an entire year of Saturdays. He knows that many of their parents, like his, don't speak much English and can't help with schoolwork like this.
Getachew says that more supports are needed to help immigrant and refugee students succeed in school.
"I was struggling when I came here," he says. "I know immigrant and refugee students have the same goals as me but they have limited resources, so I just want to try to get them the resources they need."
Getachew also credits his school, a unique private school based on the Cristo Rey style of schooling, for his success.
School losing its building
But De La Salle North is in limbo. It's losing the lease on its building in 2021 — PPS wants it back to help with overcrowding. Patti O'Mara, board president and interim CEO of the school, says the search for suitable real estate in the city has been difficult but that they "have to" find space for the program to continue.
Tuition is $2,995 per year — those who can afford more than that are turned away, according to O'Mara.
"We only serve the very, very poor," she says. "The kids have grit. There are 300 kids here that have stories like Abel."
The cost of their education is offset in part by their corporate work study program. Students must work a day a week for a company partner — an entry-level job in the field they would like to go into. The work study program raises almost half of the school's operating budget of $4.7 million. But it's not just about the money, O'Mara says. The work study program motivates students and gives them real-world experience and industry contacts.
De La Salle North has been criticized for kicking out students who do not succeed. But those with the luck, skill and determination to succeed do graduate and almost all are accepted to college. Going through the program makes them 3.5 times more likely to get a bachelor's degree than their typical peers, according to the school.
Getachew came there from Roosevelt High School, where he did not have a good experience. He says PPS gave him just 40 minutes a day of English-language instruction. "I don't think that's supportive enough," he said.
Getachew says immigrants and refugees like him need to have more support and acceptance to succeed.
"No one leaves their home country, unless their country becomes like the mouth of a shark," he said.
Kaiser invests in Getachew
Portland graduate Abel Getachew will get a $10,000 scholarship from Kaiser Permanente to attend Georgetown University next fall.
Though it is a small fraction of the overall cost of a surgeon's education, Getachew said the award solidified his confidence that he could become a doctor.
"Kaiser is more than just a scholarship," he said. "It's a support group."
Molly Haynes, director of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, said the program is designed to invest in non-traditional local health care students.
"We know that educational attainment really has a lifelong impact on people's health," Haynes said, adding that Kaiser could use a pipeline of diverse workers. "Our own workforce needs to be more diverse in order to meet the needs of our growing diversity of our members."
Started by then-regional president Andrew McCulloch, the scholarship program has grown into providing $555,000 to 151 high school and 25 college students this year. Over the program's nine years of existence, Kaiser has given away $3.1 million in these scholarships. The health care network sets aside 3 percent of its operating revenue for "community investments."
Recipients are chosen based on demographics — such as whether they are first generation or bilingual and whether they have demonstrated a commitment to their career path.
In addition, Kaiser offers a summer internship program to about 100 of the students, which pays well above minimum wage.
UPDATE (6/7/18): De La Salle North Catholic High School will lose its lease in 2021. An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date.