New Urban High School plans revival
An alternative high school in the North Clackamas School District will be demolished this spring to make way for a new 49,350-sqaure-foot building with 23 classrooms.
During the 2020-21 school year, students at New Urban High School will attend classes in the adjacent Oak Grove Center annex building and in three portable buildings that will temporarily cover the half-acre being used by nonprofit Schoolyard Farms.
New Urban's replacement building on Oak Grove Boulevard, scheduled to be completed in time for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, was originally envisioned as an $11 million "major renovation" when voters approved the $433 million in capital construction funds in 2016.
A replacement main building at New Urban is now estimated at $22.5 million, which includes a financial reserve cushion, and officials will consider whether the district can afford an additional estimated $3 million for a New Urban gym once construction contractors submit their final bids.
With its ballooning budget, New Urban will be the district's fifth most expensive bond project, only behind the two new high schools, a new elementary school and a technology center.
New Urban's construction budget being double what was originally estimated will not affect the overall bond budget, in part because the unexpectedly strong market for governmental bond sales brought in $47 million above the $433 million "face" value, yielding a total of $480 million for the district.
With most of the district's 52 projects coming in below budget estimates, overall the school district's bond projects remain on time and on budget, said North Clackamas spokesman Jonathan Hutchison.
"The purpose to the bond is to modernize practically all of our schools and make a meaningful dent in the backlog of capital improvements," Hutchison said.
Several students with disabilities were a major factor in the district deciding to change course to build a new building rather than renovate New Urban. Andrea Lockard, the school's new principal, noted that the current three-story building has no elevator, so a series of ramps had to be constructed for students.
"It's posed quite a few challenges for students who are using a wheelchair or crutches," Lockard said, "not to mention the ongoing issues for custodial staff and technology carts."
New Urban: Out with the old
When the cost to seismically retrofit New Urban's old building exceeded expectations, the decision to raze and rebuild became clear. That decision seems to sit well with the neighborhood historic preservationists.
Oak Lodge History Detectives member Mike Schmeer likes to see buildings preserved if they have historical significance for the community, and New Urban's circa-1920 building has a certain charm.
"My assessment is that New Urban isn't not meeting the school district's needs, and we all know that tearing down a building and starting over is often easier than renovating," Schmeer said. "We hate to see things destroyed, but at the same time nothing lasts forever."
Oak Grove leaders are focusing their efforts on preserving the former Concord Elementary building, which the school district recently sold to Clackamas County.
Schmeer is a member of the Concord Property and Library Planning Task Force, which recommended that county officials hire a consultant to study seismic retrofitting of the existing Concord building for relocating the Oak Lodge Library, among other options.
"I'm not going to go to any hearings or march around with signs about razing New Urban, but I'm adamantly opposed to tearing down Concord, because unlike New Urban, Concord is an iconic part of our community," he said. "The appearance of Concord is unlike anything else in Oak Lodge."
While the impending construction at New Urban isn't being met with protests, school officials recognize that the Oak Grove community has plenty of fond memories of the old building.
New Urban's current building served as the home of Oak Grove Grade School until 2000, when the district merged this school with North Oak Grove School on Torbank Road. The North Oak Grove building constructed in 1963 then became Oak Grove Elementary.
School administrators at New Urban are supporting an effort by former students to come up with ideas for how the old building's history will be honored in the new building.
A gathering of former students to discuss ideas related to the demolition of New Urban's building will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at the Performing Arts Center at Rose Villa, 13505 S.E. River Road, Oak Grove.
Pam Martin, who attended Oak Grove Grade School from 1958-67, is working with New Urban's principal to organize the gathering of former students. Another event is scheduled at 5 p.m. May 13 to give community members a chance to tour the old building before it's razed.
"Since it's so special to so many people, I thought we should get together and talk about what we'd like to see in the new building," Martin said. "I know a lot of those kids who still live in the area."
New Urban's principal said plans for the new building's interior are still in development, including any memorials to the old building like a wall of historic photographs.
Lockard said school staff are working with a tribal leader to find an appropriate way to memorialize the area's history prior to the establishment of Oak Grove in the 19th century.
"Our land is on indigenous ground, so we're trying to honor that," she said. "Students are also planning an art exhibition this spring to tie the past with the present."
Lockhart added that the construction contractors will be reclaiming wood from the old building wherever possible for reuse in the new one.
Farm on hiatus
New Urban partnered with nonprofit Schoolyard Farms to build a half-acre garden on an underused section of the school's property in spring 2016. The farm has served as an outdoor classroom and food-production job training program for New Urban's 120-150 students.
With a grant from the Oregon Department of Education's Farm to School program, Schoolyard Farms began a monthly tasting program for 700 students featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables at New Urban, along with the Oregon City School District's Jennings Lodge and Candy Lane elementary schools.
The first dish that was on offer at New Urban was a corn and tomato salad that the cafeteria staff made from tomatoes and basil grown on the farm behind the school, plus canned corn that the cafeteria had in bulk.
During a recent growing season, Schoolyard Farms reported distributing nearly 9,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to community members from the two school sites.
Schoolyard Farms is planning to conduct its annual summer camp this year in Jennings Lodge. More information about this program can be found at schoolyardfarms.org.
Lockard doesn't expect there will be much room for the farm when the land is commandeered for three portable buildings to house classrooms during construction. She added that, once selected, construction contractor will be asked to return the farmland to its original condition after the opening of the new building.
Courtney Leeds, the former executive director of Schoolyard Farms, said she resigned her paid position in 2017 and is now working at OHSU. Allison Meyer, president of the Schoolyard Farms board of directors, said the nonprofit organization is "operating minimally right now" with only volunteers, and much of the support coming from parents at Candy Lane.
"We were made aware of the construction at New Urban this winter and are planning to transfer materials from New Urban to our main farm at Candy Lane," Meyer said.
Volunteers are needed for a Schoolyard Farms work party from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, March 7, to break down and clean up the farm space at New Urban.
According to newly released data from the state, New Urban had its graduation rate drop to 38.2% last year from 46.3% in 2018. Only 24% of New Urban boys graduated on time last year.
When considering these graduation numbers, school officials said it's important to add context about how New Urban isn't a traditional high school. About 30% of New Urban students have reported thoughts about suicide in the past year to the school's two mental health professionals, who say these students would likely have dropped out of school altogether, if not for a place like New Urban.
"Its students are generally there because they were not able to navigate traditional high school successfully for reasons that are often not their fault — trauma, family addiction, abuse, etc.," Hutchison said. "The fact that students attend and are engaged to the extent they are is a measure of success, but not one that easily translates into a quantifiable measurement (like graduation rates)."
Lockard, who holds a doctorate degree in education from Lewis & Clark, agrees that graduation rates should not be an emphasis at New Urban, which prides itself on being a magnet school for students interested in the arts, in addition to providing all the credits required for graduation.
She says that school staff at New Urban try to "meet students where they are" by providing "wrap-around services" to help deal with a variety of challenges.
"New Urban students have a passion for showing leadership and building community through collaborative problem solving," she said. "We have a very heavy art focus, so students did a collage to help envision the new building."
Noah Hurd, who had been the New Urban principal since 2013, left to take an assistant principal job at Lakeridge High School.
Prior to taking the open position this school year at New Urban, Lockard was an administrator in the Clackamas Education Service District and Portland Public Schools developing curriculum and assessment practices.
She said that New Urban was the only place she applied when the principal position opened up, because early in her career as a teacher in Salem, she came to believe in the necessity of alternative high schools for students who are "feeling disengaged" from their traditional high school.
This story has been updated from its original version online to correct the history of the New Urban building and clarify that the construction contractor has not yet been selected and will be asked to return farmland to its original condition when the project is finished.
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