September enrollment at Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public (LEP) Charter High School is down from 344 students at the start of the school year last September to 280 this year.
No one is sure why.
Lorna Fast Buffalo Horse, LEP’s director and principal, speculates that reforms at some of Portland’s traditional high schools could be causing more students to stay put. But she tells the school’s governing board that enrollment will likely climb again, as the back-to-school “honeymoon period” ends for some kids at those bigger schools.
Keeping enrollment steady is crucial at LEP. Enrollment drives state funding, and board members are all too aware of the price to be paid for financial instability.
Just three years ago, LEP (pronounced Leap) High was nearly shut down by a skeptical Portland School Board anxious about the charter’s finances.
The board initially voted to close the school, but LEP leaders filed an appeal. Students organized news conferences and packed a school board meeting to plead their case.
In fewer than three weeks, the school raised more than $100,000 in donations and grants. School officials overhauled their management practices and presented the Portland board with a new plan, which was approved.
But tough financial times have continued to dog the school in central Portland. This year, staff took a 2 percent pay cut.
“It’s painful,” says Fast Buffalo Horse.
Back at LEP, as discussion by the school governing board turns to student recruitment, chairman David Rule urges caution.
“We don’t want to just attract warm bodies,” says Rule, whose day job is president of one of Portland Community College’s three main campuses. “We want students who understand our mission and will stay.”
The mission of LEP High, which opened in 2006, is a complex one. Students learn how to write a business plan and how to shine in a job interview. They complete internships with Portland-area businesses and nonprofit organizations, everything from a tattoo shop to the Oregon Zoo.
They learn the principles of what makes a business socially responsible. Some launch their own enterprises – an organic fair trade coffee cart, a light-show service.
Of 32 students in LEP’s first graduating class in 2010, 30 went to college, one took a job that grew out of a school internship and another entered the military.
A consultant’s report commissioned earlier this year by the sponsoring Portland Public Schools Board called LEP’s curriculum “one of a kind in Oregon.” A student puts it this way in the report: “LEP has opened different parts of my brain.”
The student body is racially diverse. A total of 21 percent of students are black and 25 percent are Hispanic, compared with 12.1 percent and 15.9 percent in the city’s public school system as a whole.
The curriculum is college prep, with higher graduation requirements than the city’s traditional high schools. Every student takes Advanced Placement English. Students must earn a C grade or better to pass – no credit for a D.
Yet many students could be defined as “at risk.” Nearly 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 45 percent in the district as a whole.
LEP’s state test scores give it a rating of “in need of improvement.” A total of 14 other Portland schools share the same rating.
But LEP is more than the sum of its test scores.
Theresa Smallwood chose it for her two sons, one a sophomore and the other a senior.
“I love the small size, the teachers, the extended learning opportunities,” she says. “I love the mission of the school and the way it allows them to flourish.”
Her boys’ early education was in international schools in cities such as Hong Kong. Smallwood’s husband, Kurt, is employed by Nike, and the family spent 10 years overseas before returning to Oregon. The small high school has helped her shy older son become “more open, become a leader.”
And her younger boy, a gregarious athlete who plays basketball for both a Portland high school and a club team, has the extra academic boost he needed, Smallwood said.
LEP offers options for students who need extra support. There is after-school help, and a night school for students who are deficient in credits.
Students say the small school makes asking for help easier.
Josie Flores, a 17-year-old senior, came to LEP after completing her freshman year at the 1,500-student Cleveland High School. A counselor there noticed an unusual pattern in her grades – she was getting C’s and A’s – and asked if she was bored. The counselor suggested she look around to see what else the school district had to offer.
Flores chose LEP because “everyone here was excited about what they were doing.”
She likes its small scale: “I know almost everybody by sight.” She clicked with her teachers. After graduation, she wants to pursue a degree in emergency management.
The idea for this unusual high school came from a guy who hated high school.
“It was like a jail sentence,” says LEP co-founder Adam Reid of his days at suburban Hillsboro High School.
“I only graduated because my parents wouldn’t let me drop out,” Reid says.
At age 15, he started his first business – recording his and other students’ garage bands and producing their CDs. It wasn’t until Reid entered Portland State University that education finally clicked for him.
He loved the debate, the critical thinking and the real-world focus he found on campus.
“If high school had been anything like college, everything would have been different for me,” Reid says.
He says LEP’s goal isn’t just to turn out future CEOs.
“It’s about empowering youth,” he says. He remembers how annoyed he was as a teen when adults refused to take his ideas seriously.
But because he was young, he says, he could take more risks, be more creative.
“You find your own passions,” he says, “and you make that your life, your career.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com