One of Oregon’s most successful high schools at educating students of color is losing its building. Students finishing their freshman year at De La Salle North Catholic this spring will be the last class to graduate at the school’s current location, after Portland Public Schools rejected the private school’s effort to extend its lease of a former elementary building in North Portland.
De La Salle North Catholic was the first offshoot of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, when it opened in Portland in 2001. Since then, 30 schools have joined the Cristo Rey Network across the country.
A hallmark of the Cristo Rey approach is its partnership with local businesses, as part of the curriculum. At De La Salle North Catholic, students spend one day a week working at a Portland-area business: Students gain work experience, the businesses get an entry-level employee for eight hours a week, and the school gets a portion of the student’s tuition paid by the businesses, as compensation for the student’s work. DLSNC estimates that the work-study arrangement helps cut the $15,000 per-student cost of education to less than $3,000 tuition for students (not including financial aid).
De La Salle North Catholic began on property owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, but had to move when the diocese entered bankruptcy. It moved into its current home at the former Kenton Elementary School building in 2007. PPS had closed Kenton the year before, as part of a district-wide restructuring effort, amid declining enrollments and tightening budgets. DLSNC's roughly 300 students have been at Kenton ever since.
Officials at the private Catholic school say 73 percent of DLSNC’s students identify as black or Latino, and only 15 percent are white. They enroll in ninth grade an average of one and half years behind, academically.
Yet of the students who stay for four years, school administrators say, 95 percent graduate and get into college, with 45 percent going on to earn college degrees.
Unlike Portland Public, De La Salle North Catholic does not publish four-year cohort graduation rates.
The average graduation rate for PPS high schools is 78 percent, and below 70 percent for both black and Latino students.
Initially, DLSNC had a 20-year lease agreement for Kenton through 2026, with options for up to three extensions of up to 10 years. Officials say they spent $2 million on renovations for the vacant building.
But before long, DLSNC leaders got anxious. They say the escalating payments of well over $400,000 a year were too steep and what felt initially like a 50-year lease, was feeling less certain as time passed. So they approached PPS in 2015 to discuss alternatives. DLSNC leaders offered three options: They could buy the building, negotiate a new 60-year lease extension or terminate the lease earlier than 2026.
“PPS denied the first two options outright and agreed to the third,” DLSNC officials told OPB this week. “They also stated that even though DLSNC had three 10-year extensions beyond 2026, they would not be extending them.”
The school decided to cut the lease short, rather than pay upwards of $400,000 per year for the indefinite future. Officials agreed in 2015 to end the lease in July 2021.
Fast-forward three years to 2018, though, and the small private high school has not found a place to go. School leaders have a tough set of criteria to satisfy: big enough for a high school (about 55,000 square feet), on public transit (to accommodate the transportation needs of their students) and as close to their North Portland roots (and students) as possible. Kenton satisfied all three.
So, this year, DLSNC leaders met with the new administration at Portland Public Schools: board chair Julia Brim-Edwards, board member Rita Moore and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.
“There had been so much change at PPS; we had such difficulty finding a permanent home, we felt like, ‘You know what, we need to ask one more time, with the new leadership,’” said De La Salle North Catholic’s board chair Patti O’Mara.
Since 2015, Portland Public Schools' executive offices have been revolving doors, with Superintendent Carole Smith and Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano leaving amid the lead-in-water scandal, the brief tenure of interim Superintendent Bob McKean. It hasn't stopped with arrival of Guerrero last October, as former operations chiefs Yousef Awwad and Jerry Vincent, and chief strategic officer Laura Parker have left in recent months.
“To be honest, everyone we worked with in 2015 is gone,” O'Mara told OPB.
So O’Mara entered a meeting this spring with one main question about the Kenton building.
“Is there any ability to stay? And the answer was no,” O’Mara said.
PPS confirmed to OPB that it was not interested in changing its approach to DLSNC and the Kenton Elementary building, and instead was looking forward to adding an elementary school to its portfolio of facilities.
“When DLSNC asked us recently to extend the lease, we declined and explained to them that we are in a position where we need all our available facilities to accommodate our schools and programs,” said director of strategic communications and outreach Harry Esteve in an email to OPB.
“As recent events have shown, space is at a premium at PPS and we are having difficulties finding enough space to house all of our programs,” Esteve continued.
Esteve was referencing, at least in part, the district’s repeated failure to find even a short-term home for the ACCESS Academy — a district-run alternative program for talented and gifted students who can show they're not well-supported at neighborhood schools.
The issue of "space is at a premium" relates to PPS making a different decision about a school tenant in a district building last year. PPS had initially intended for a public charter school called Kairos PDX to leave the Humboldt Elementary School building in North Portland, so that the ACCESS Academy could move in. But local elected leaders, like Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Speaker of the Oregon House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, spoke out against the move, and PPS backed off. Since then, PPS has floated and scuttled two other plans, leaving ACCESS families in limbo, and filing complaints, as the school year winds down.
The district currently rents Humboldt to Kairos PDX for $122,000 per year — barely one-quarter of the $443,000 it’s earning by renting Kenton to De La Salle North Catholic this school year.
PPS does not know what it will do with Kenton Elementary School after De La Salle North Catholic leaves in 2021.
“We don’t have a specific plan for the school at this point,” said Esteve via email. “But [we] are considering how to use it in a way that is most beneficial to our students and families.”
De La Salle leaders are less focused on pressuring PPS to allow the school to remain at Kenton, and more interested in finding a suitable site elsewhere. But board chair O’Mara said the real estate market and lack of vacant sites are combining for a tougher situation than expected, when school leaders negotiated the shorter lease in 2015.
“None of us knew, the community didn’t know, how hot Portland would be, so we find ourselves in 2018 ... we haven’t found a home,” O’Mara said. “We’re asking the community to help us. We need to find a permanent home, where we can control it.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story used an unsubstantiated graduation rate for De La Salle North Catholic. The story has now been changed to more accurately reflect the school's lack of a published four-year graduation rate. OPB regrets any confusion.