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Alternative high school in Northeast Portland received grant from Oregon Education Department.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Teacher's assistant and Helensview student Juan Hernandez uses a bladed tool on a lathe while demonstrating how students make mechanical pencils on Friday, Dec. 7. It was scrap wood, destined for the trash heap.

A student at Helensview School in Northeast Portland plucked the wooden block from a pile, chopped it in half with a miter saw and bored a tunnel lengthwise with a drill press.

A lathe inside the alternative school's newly-renovated makerspace rotated the wood at a rate of 3,000 revolutions per minute. The student — maybe one of 34 pupils here with children of their own — chipped away steadily with a tool. Pieces of sandpaper, ranging from 150 to 600 grit, rubbed the rough wood smooth.

What remained was stained and polished. Rose gold or silver colored metal clasped it together. Now it's a mechanical pencil, the product of a new Career Technical Education lab serving the roughly 300 students at Helensview.

"Our students have not been successful at other schools," said Principal Dawn Joella-Jackson. "We greet them with open arms and open minds about what they can do."

The Oregon Department of Education provided $336,000 in funding to revitalize the woodshop and a culinary program at the school, 8678 N.E. Sumner St., which serves students age 12 to 21 from 10 other districts as part of the Multnomah Education Service District.

The funding was part of more than $10.3 million distributed by the state agency to 101 schools.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Helensview Principal Dawn Joella-JacksonJuan Hernandez is the woodworking teacher's assistant. Chronic absenteeism bounced the 19-year-old from Madison High to four other schools over the years, and administrators stopped believing in him.

"They told me, 'Just don't go to school.' I had like three credits," said Hernandez, who will graduate at the end of the school year and hopes to become a contractor after completing college. "Now at home I'm the go-to dude, fixing everything."

The transformation at Helensview began in earnest in June, with additions in the workshop including ventilation, a new chop saw, planer, scroll saw, cordless drills and a smart StopSaw that automatically shuts off if fingers or flesh get too close.

Students have been busy building coffins for Halloween, shoe boxes with the "Jumpman" Michael Jordan logo, dollhouses and a podium to be used at Wheatley School. They also get dual credit at Mt. Hood Community College.

"Math and wood go hand in hand," said Jermaine Whitaker, a woodshop teacher who teaches middle school classes.

The rest of the state funding was funneled into the school's culinary program, adding a new broiler, fryer, flattop, prep sink and storage racks. The dish pit was repaired, and a dinosaur-sized vent was replaced with a captured-air system, allowing the school to fit 12 to 15 students inside the kitchen, rather than just six.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Joe Williams, a culinary and math teacher, helps students serve up tacos and chicken pozole during a presentation about the new additions at Helensview School on Friday, Dec. 7."This grant has really helped us engage students in a career path that will lead to a living wage," said Joe Williams, a math teacher who directs the culinary program.

Williams, a former chef, says he tries to run the kitchen like an actual restaurant, with students learning how to price and invoice food as well as hospitality, communication and other business skills.

Frankia Cloman, 14, was surprised to learn how much time professional cooks spend prepping after she came to the school last year. "I wasn't really in a good spot," she said of her arrival. "I got into the culinary program, and my whole mood for the school changed."

"It helps us prepare for the future," she added. "I feel more confident."

Helensview also offers fine arts classes, a music production studio, a bicycle repair shop and daycare for student parents. As for the mechanical pens, they'll be purchased by the Portland Police Bureau and given out during promotion ceremonies.

Not bad for scrap wood.

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