Earning a diploma from Benson Polytechnic High School is serious business.

In addition to passing the standard classes in history, English, math and science, Benson's graduates must complete hands-on, real-world work in one of three pathways: health science; industry and engineering; or  communications technology.

Benson has one of the highest graduation rates in the city, particularly for African-American, Latino and low-income students, and a big percentage go on to jobs or college.

But the school is under threat from Portland Public Schools, which three years ago tried to reduce Benson to a two-year vocational-tech institute. After a public protest, the district capped Benson's enrollment—barring almost half the 400 students who apply annually from attending.

Keighley Overbay is a Benson success story. She worked daily in the school cafeteria, reassembled a car engine and overcame frustrations when PPS cut her major, computer science.

She graduates this week with a 4.0 GPA, one of four valedictorians. In the fall, she heads off with a two-thirds ride to Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, where she will study computers.

Overbay, 18, talked with WW about her experiences at this extraordinary high school and what she thinks of  PPS's efforts to shrink her school.

When did you first learn about Benson?

My mom worked as a lunch lady, and eventually worked at Benson. I was always really interested in computers and technology from when I was little.

When I first arrived, Benson had that air of mystery. It had all these different hallways, I remember seeing all this machinery and computers. I wanted to go there and get to work with these things.

How would your experience have been different at another high school?

I've gotten to know people from all sorts of financial, racial and ethnic backgrounds, people who want to go for a doctorate and people who aren't going to college at all. It's interesting to see the different ways people can find success.


Which pathway did you follow?

My major was computer science, but they cut that. I ended up going into communications. When they cut that as a major, I went into digital media production.

Before I declared a major, I did a lot of work in automotive and manufacturing. I've taken apart a small engine and put it back together. I used a computer program to design a coaster, the kind you put drinks on. We cut that design out of wood, used sand casting and forged it out of metal—pouring hot liquid metal and casting it. I don't think other students get to do that.


Is it different being a girl at Benson?

Not too much. There's the idea that most girls at Benson are either health-science or communications majors. But even if you do auto or manufacturing, you still get the same respect.

I feel like I've had a lot of encouragement from teachers to learn to explore what I want in life and to pursue that. Teachers have given me advice about speaking up for myself and doing what I need to.

What did you miss by going to Benson instead of a comprehensive high school?

I missed a lot of electives. I was really interested in learning Spanish, but at Benson they only offered two years. We should have a wider choice of majors, and electives like languages, art, band, even clubs. Benson just doesn't have the funding for them.


Can you tell me a little about what a Benson diploma means, versus a regular PPS high-school diploma?

I've done a lot more specific work in my major. Even though I haven't had the benefit of electives, I've studied in a really concentrated area, which I think prepares me more for the work force in the future. I've made actual websites and movies.


What do you think of PPS's decision to shrink and cap Benson's enrollment? 

I won't say they are slowly killing it off. But by slowly making it smaller—which means less funding—our program isn't as strong as it could be. I find that personally aggravating. I wanted to go into computer science, and I had that taken away.

They used to have more majors, but the funding was too low. A lot of those were lost. It's really taking away from the high-school experience we should have there.


Did you participate in the protests in 2010 after PPS announced plans to turn Benson into a two-year vo-tech school?

I didn't. I wish I had. At that point I didn't realize how much Benson would mean to me. The seniors, they knew it was a great school and they were out there. I didn't know that yet. If it happened this year, I would definitely be out there and protest. 


What would you tell the district about Benson?

Keep supporting the school, because it is a really great environment.

How do you feel about leaving Benson?

It's definitely bittersweet. At the beginning of the year, I was so ready to be done and get out of there. By the second half of the year, I was thinking I will miss it a lot. In the last few weeks, I've been really happy with everything. It's like, why am I so happy with high school when everything is ending?