Stepping Up

How do you help disconnected students succeed in school and life?

By Amanda Waldroupe ’07 | December 1, 2016

Each morning, before classes begin, the students of Portland’s Open School recite “In Lak’ech,” a Spanish and English poem based on a Mayan greeting that honors the individual and community:

Andrew Mason ’90, Open School’s executive director, incorporated the greeting into the school day because it reflects his teaching philosophy: that students cannot learn until they know they’re respected, able to respect others, and able to be an active part of the community. 

Open School is a non-profit alternative middle and high school in Portland. In Oregon, alternative high schools teach students who have struggled with or dropped out of a traditional public school, or are about to. 

In 2014, Portland Public Schools had a 30% dropout rate—one of the country’s highest among major cities. An alternative school’s academic requirements are often less demanding but still allow students to earn a GED or diploma. Students who enroll in alternative schools often contend with numerous factors impacting their ability to learn: mental illnesses, learning disabilities, unstable or impoverished homes, and trauma. 

But Open School does not skimp on academics. Andrew fiercely believes in the ability of his students to become inspired, motivated adults who eventually go to college. 

“A number of these kids have been pushed out by the mainstream system saying they can’t make it. It’s a moral abomination,” Andrew says. “They can and they will.”

 Open School’s performance proves Andrew right. During the 2014–15 school year, every student advanced at least two grade levels in reading and math. Close to 94% of the school’s seniors graduated, and 90% attend a postsecondary school. 

Some students, like 13-year-old William, make even greater leaps. When he began attending Open School in the seventh grade, he had the reading and math abilities of a third-grader. He says the teachers at his old middle school wouldn’t help when he asked. “They told us to remember what they told us and to do the worksheet,” he says. “I was like, how am I supposed to learn?”

William’s scores are now at his current eighth-grade level. His relationship with his teachers is much better. “They can be your friends,” he says. “They can talk to you about stuff. You can trust them.” 

Andrew doesn’t think there is a silver bullet or secret sauce to Open School’s success. In addition to typical academic subjects, students also learn social and interpersonal skills, and the school takes time to talk about race, poverty, class, and other issues affecting students’ everyday life.

“It has everything to do with a welcoming environment,” Andrew says. “When they show up and they feel heard and seen and then take the standardized test, instead of scribbling doodles or writing ‘fuck you’ on the test, they actually do it because they believe someone cares on the other end.” 

Open School’s curriculum and pedagogy have been sculpted to help students receive a diploma. 

“It is the power of education that interrupts the cycle of poverty. In the end, in this economy, what do you have to do? You have to be able to learn,” he says. “Once you’re educated, you can’t take [that] away.”  

Andrew’s lifelong devotion to education and social justice started at Reed. Hailing from New Jersey, he went to Pomona for a year and then transferred to Reed, where he majored in philosophy. He also witnessed student activists who tried to persuade Reed to divest its portfolio from companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid era. During that time, his thesis adviser, Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94], exhorted him to think about whom he was helping, and why, in the same manner as he did with philosophical subjects: critically, thoughtfully, carefully. 

After Reed, Andrew worked for the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps teaching forestry skills to at-risk kids, where he learned the value of what he calls “reality therapy.” The kids worked in the middle of the forest, and if they forgot their lunch or warmer clothes, they would go without for the day.

“There were days when these kids would just sit in the van because they were too cold,” Andrew remembers. “We’d tell them, ‘We’re not going to go back early. You’re not going to get that reward for choosing to think that it’s too cold.’”  

There is a tension, he found, between enabling students and helping them. 

He joined Open School (which until recently was called Open Meadows) as a program director, eventually becoming executive director in 2005. His leadership is guided by the fervent belief that kids—no matter how troubled or knuckleheaded they appeared to be—have the capacity to learn.

 “If you don’t believe they’re capable, then you won’t hold them accountable,” Andrew says. “If you hold them accountable without believing they’re capable, then you’re a jerk. That’s the school-to-jail pipeline.”   

Armed with data on dropout rates and student demographics, Andrew is ready to evolve the alternative high school model.

“We have a system where we take kids who’ve already dropped out, who are mainly disproportionately low income and kids of color, in an era when the data has enabled us to identify kids who are going to drop out,” he says. “Why do we wait for them to drop out?” 

That question is propelling Open School’s next chapter: a middle school that takes kids who have begun to struggle, helps them stay at grade level, and prevents them from failing. 

Open School opened a new 7th–12th-grade school near the Portland-Gresham border this fall, which draws students from Portland Public Schools and districts in eastern Multnomah County: David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, and Reynolds. Increasingly, Andrew says, this area “is where our people are.” 

According to census data, 89% of public school students east of 82nd Avenue are eligible for free and reduced lunch, versus 20% in 2000. “It’s a 15-year tidal wave of poverty,” Andrew says.

When thinking of the experience he wants the students of Open School to have, Andrew looks back, in part, to Reed. 

“I think back to the times I’ve read the Republic or Oedipus and think about how it comes to life. What about those joys for our students? That was an initial inspiration and dream. That’s still where we’re trying to get to today.”

mason stairs image

Tú eres mi otro yo.

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti,

If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mi mismo.

I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,

If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo.

I love and respect myself.

Tags: Alumni, Service, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion