Light streams through the skylights in De La Salle North Catholic High School's new premises and gleams from the pale hardwood floors. The private high school, which sends 100 percent of its – mostly low-income — students to college each year, has finally taken up residence in the former Kenton Elementary school.
The move is a huge change for students and staff after seven years at its previous location on North Delaware. That building had no gym, no auditorium, minimal office space and a tiny kitchen. Now with eight classrooms, a theater, off-street parking, ample office and meeting space, and an elevator that offers disability access, the school's living space has doubled.
"We were more than a little cramped," said Matt Powell, the school's president. "We were in a grade school built for about 150 little people and we had more than 200 big people."
So far, the renovation has cost about $2.6 million. The school raised the money with the help of donors, who include its many corporate sponsors. Tim and Mary Boyle of Columbia sportswear, for example, gave $1 million to the capital campaign. That campaign will continue to raise money to build a new gymnasium. Currently the school cafeteria doubles as the gym, which means a lot of setting up and taking down of tables and chairs.
At the official opening ceremony, Nov. 8 from 5 p.m. to about 7 p.m., parents and guests will celebrate the culmination of several years of work. Simply negotiating the contract with Portland Public Schools and working with local neighborhood association to get city permits took more than a year.
Powell said the school will exert a positive influence on the corner of N. Lombard and Interstate, a spot that at times has seen drug dealing and gang activity. So far it has added more than 1000 plants, bushes and trees to beautify the site.
"We want to be a good neighbor," Powell said. "On the first day of school our students took flowers to our neighbors as a gesture of welcoming."
Originally the school board was planning to expand the North Delaware building. But when the Portland archdiocese declared bankruptcy, that idea suddenly evaporated. Trustees began looking for a new building to lease. So when Portland Public schools closed Kenton School and asked for proposals for the site, they were ready to make a bid.
Built in 1913, the school is a period delight with high ceilings, large windows, curved mouldings and unique features such as the closet doors in classrooms that roll up and the period mural that livens the entrance. Now completely refurbished with walls painted the color of cinnamon, butternut squash and chocolate, the school radiates warmth and welcome.
Powell said the school plans to expand to about 300 students. De La Salle North serves a diverse student group from as far afield as Vancouver, Southwest Portland and outer Southeast, although most live in North and Northeast Portland. And even though this is a private religious school, its mission is to serve families where students are eligible for free school meals. So instead of charging families, it requires students to earn their tuition by taking on internships at local firms. For a few hours each week, students perform entry-level clerical jobs at about 50 companies including Tektronix, Nike, Xerox, Miller Nash, Walsh Construction and New Seasons. The program pays for 70 percent of the operating budget.
"Our corporate internships are one of the most powerful things in our program," Powell told the Skanner. "The students get a lot of mentoring from co-workers encouraging them and challenging them. Those relationships are really helpful. They see the kind of work that's going on and they think 'I could do be doing this if I get my degree.'"
Statistics show many students from low-income families do less well educationally than kids from wealthier backgrounds. Not at De La Salle North. If past performance holds then all of these teens will go to college, some of them to prestigious universities such as the University of Chicago and historically Black colleges such as Bennett, Spelman and Howard University.
Small classes of 18 to 20 students, high expectations, a rigorous academic program, and a commitment to service, sports and community activities, all play into the school's success.
"We don't have all the answers but the thing we're good at here is connecting with students and their families," Powell said. "It's relational. The kids know they're cared for and they are loved by their teachers."
Pierre Nabors, a junior, said he left to attend a larger school, but decided to return. "I came back for everything that De La Salle represents," he said. "Having a job, having a close-knit community. It's way easier and better than being in a bigger place. I don't mind the structure. It's easier; it helps you."