King School rebound draws neighbors in
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
After hard work and determination from parents and educators, King Elementary in northeast Portland has finally begun to capture attention as a successful school serving its diverse neighborhood.
Heather Dugas was an active volunteer through the Smart Reading program at King School, even before her children were old enough to attend.
As a resident of northeast Portland, she had heard horror stories about King, located at 4906 N.E. Sixth Ave., the closest educational center in her neighborhood.
“I heard people talk about it,” she said. “But then I realized this was a beautiful school, with a lot of talented and involved teachers, who want to see the kids succeed.”
According to Dugas, parents decisions on where to send their child to school is often based on what they have found online or heard by word-of-mouth, without ever taking a step through the doors to see the school first-hand.
“But if I had based it on those two things, my daughter would not have ended up at King,” she said. “I wouldn’t send my child to a school that was notorious for gangs.”
Opposite from any past notions of King being a school of gang-bangers, violence and children who were unable to learn, she has found King children performing at their best both inside and outside of the classroom.
“More research is often times necessary, and sometimes you have to take a chance,” Dugas said. “If you believe in your child and your neighborhood and where you live, you can help make your school succeed.”
She has encouraged others to support their local schools as a part of the solution to educational disparities.
In the early 90s, Dugas remembers when her neighborhood was hit with a high level of violence.
“I lived here. It was a dangerous place to be,” she said. “You certainly still hear about crime, but I think it is a lot less.”
But throughout the past several years, Dugas said she has watched the school begin to blossom through the hard work of parents and educators at King.
“Our whole motto is ‘It takes a village’, but it really does. I know there is a group of us that we are not going to give up. We are going to see this through.”
According to Karen Werstein, also a King parent, there is a plethora of reasons to why the community should support King School, where she sends her son Max and daughter Ruby every day.
She said King students are the ones who welcome her with a hug each morning, hold hands with each other to walk safely to the bathroom, and perform the most beautiful African dances, with giant smiles on their faces.
As a Title I School, King, which is largely comprised of African American and Latino youth, provides free breakfast, lunch and snacks to students every day.
“It is rich with culture and diversity, and the King teachers and parents have really pulled together to create a school that is looking for equity in our school district and our community,” Werstein said.
A cornerstone of Portland’s black community, King was just selected by the White House to participate as a Turnaround Arts school, which recognized the school for making strides in student achievement with innovative initiatives with the arts.
“This grant is a really big deal,” said Dugas. “And new principal Kim Patterson has made it a priority to keep programs she thinks will improve student’s achievement academically.”
According to Dugas, the only schools that qualify for the federal grant were ones considered to be in the bottom five percent in the country, but she said King has made great strides in the past year, which simply can’t remain unnoticed.
As part of the program, Turnaround and its partners will provide training and resources to King school including professional development, partnerships with community arts education and cultural organizations, additional art supplies and musical instruments and community engagement events.
Although most people don’t correlate academic improvement with art, Dugas said it is really does help a child succeed in school, whether as an outlet emotionally or because they are using both sides of their brains to see things through two perspectives.
In the 1980s, King was renowned for a choir, which often toured around the nation. “There was also an intense tumbling program,” she said. “It fed so beautifully directly into Jefferson, which was at the time a magnet school.
“As a school that has been neglected by its district, its neighborhood and by its community for too long, we are thrilled to be in a position to showcase the incredible school King is becoming,” said Werstein.
On May 4, parents, staff, community partners and other friends of King School will gather at the North Star Ballroom to help bridge the current funding gap, which separates King students from much needed arts programs like visual artists-in-residence and choral groups, and to maintain King’s African Dance program.
Organized by the King School PTA, the evening will feature a “1963” theme (celebrating the year of Dr. King’s landmark speech at the Lincoln Memorial) and attendees are encouraged to come dressed in their best period attire.
“I am so proud my daughter goes there and to be in this neighborhood and see some of the sparks that the school used to have,” Dugas said. “And the auction is our way to celebrate our success, but also at the same time to raise money for some of the things we do lack.”
She said King school was originally named Highland, until students rose up and said we want our school to be Martin Luther King School.
“This was important, and it is important to us still,” she said, adding the pride she withholds in the school’s name.
“It is not that it is a gang banger school, but it is founded on how peace can resolve things,” she said. “We want to bring those strengths back to invigorate the community again.”
Auction items of the “I Have a Dream” event will include dinners, health and wellness packages, legal services, vacation opportunities, symphony tickets, design and architectural consultations, and many other items and services donated from local Portland businesses.
“My hope for the future is that people will have the desire and the want to have their children go to King and be involved with the school,” said Dugas. “We want people from in the community to come and see what an amazing thing we can do, and have done. Celebrate with us.”
Tickets available via King School PTA website atkingpta.org/tickets.