Writing Center helps Portland school on rebound
By NICOLE DUNGCA
Of The Oregonian
PORTLAND — When Etsegent Ayele arrived in Portland from Ethiopia five years ago, she had trouble believing she would be accepted.
Ayele, 17, knew little English and had to adjust to a completely different world.
But after getting involved with Roosevelt High School's Writing and Publishing Center, she discovered she had little to worry about.
“I found there were people who actually wanted to hear my story,” she said.
Because of the center, she said, she's no longer shy about expressing herself.
This year, the center published its first anthology, “Where the Roses Smell Best: A Literary Companion to Portland,” including pieces from Ayele, other Roosevelt High students and prominent local writers, such as Oregon's poet laureate Paulann Petersen and Oregonian columnist Steve Duin.
On Wednesday, she and other students were on hand to help celebrate the book's publication at the Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland, where the book was added to the hotel's library. A copy will be placed in every room and guests can purchase their own copies — with the proceeds going back to sustaining the writing center.
The writing and publishing center got its start two summers ago with the help of teacher Kate McPherson. The North Portland high school, which had long been one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, was buoyed by a federal turnaround grant worth $7.7 million.
Part of that money went toward paying McPherson to help develop a center to coach students on their writing skills and develop community partnerships for a service-learning opportunity.
The school forged a strong relationship with Portland State University's Ooligan Press, which helped pay for publishing costs and provided mentorship for Unique Ink, the name of Roosevelt's publishing center. The writing project also captured a State Farm Insurance grant worth $94,000, which helped pay for publishing software, a printer and college assistants.
At the writing center, students can drop in during the school day and find student mentors or college student volunteers willing to edit essays. They can also participate in initiatives such as the Freedom Fighters Project, where freshmen interview community members who have taken a stand for social justice.
But much of the focus goes toward the publishing component, which includes a whole range of activities: writing, soliciting submissions and marketing the book. McPherson said the center - especially its projects with Ooligan Press - helps students develop skills in a subject that can prove difficult for many. In the 2012-2013 school year, fewer than half of Roosevelt's juniors passed the writing test required for graduation in Oregon.
More importantly, McPherson said, the center can help a student realize his or her potential.
“It can give kids opportunities in life,” said McPherson.
Joceyln Loyd, a recent Roosevelt graduate who was involved with the center from the very beginning, said her time at the center helped her find purpose.
When Loyd first started, she feltherself disengaged - high school didn't feel worth her time, she said.
“I got good grades, but I didn't really care,” she said.
After working on various projects and helping students as a mentor at the center, though, she realized her true interest: teaching.
“I really love writing and really love helping people embrace their own love of writing,” said the 19-year-old, who is now pursuing English literature and Japanese at Portland State University.
Charlene Williams, the school's principal, said the support for the center represents a reinvestment in the school, which has been steadily gaining students and raising test scores since it received the grant.
Even as students spend their time marketing the recently-published anthology, they already have their sights set on the latest project: a book on race and identity. They are currently soliciting submissions for the book, which could be published next year.
Ania Warren, another Roosevelt High senior who was at Wednesday's event, said she can't wait for her submission to be included in next year's book.
“Writing has always been my passion,” she said. “The publishing center just made it easier to pursue it.”
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com