Giant white sheets of paper cover the walls of Susan Anglada Bartley's Advanced Placement English classroom at Franklin High School, the long pages listing the 88 seniors in her classes, the colleges they're trying to get into, and where they have been accepted. The list includes Portland State, Oregon State and Willamette University, but also bigger fish such as Georgetown and Harvard, Stanford and MIT.
What's remarkable is that the lists exist at all.
For years, Franklin, with its high poverty rate, struggled simply to get kids to graduate. It now boasts a record-setting grad rate and a stampede of seniors headed for college.
Bartley leads Franklin's Advanced Scholar Program, which she helped create in 2007 and which has cleared a pathway to college for 256 Franklin students, many of whose parents never attended college. Along the way, Bartley and other Franklin educators have made Advanced Scholar the most popular student organization at Franklin. The program has grown from 89 students in its first year to 421 this year and now meets in the school auditorium.
Students, teachers and administrators alike credit the program with lifting achievement at Franklin. In 2009, the school failed to graduate even half its African-American students; now it has the top black graduation rate in the state—88 percent. Every senior who has met the requirements of Franklin's Advanced Scholar Program has been accepted by at least one college, and 90 percent have gone on to attend four-year institutions.
"I've been at Franklin 25 years, and it has only been in the last three that I've written college recommendations," says William McClendon III, who teaches AP Psychology and U.S. and African-American history and is a longtime mentor in the Advanced Scholar Program. "Now I'm writing dozens."
These are all outcomes Portland Public Schools officials say they want. The Portland School Board and Superintendent Carole Smith have for years sunk the district's money elsewhere: millions of dollars to outside consultants and alternative programs aimed at closing the district's persistent racial and economic achievement gaps.
Meanwhile, Franklin's Advanced Scholar Program has turned around the high school at an annual cost of $60,000, covered mostly by grants and without a dime of direct support from the district.
Since the program's start in 2008, Bartley and Franklin Principal Shay James have cobbled together funding from the school's Parent Teacher Student Association, its foundation, Franklin's general fund, and the National Education Association, a federal Small Learning Communities grant supported by the Gates Foundation. They've also received money from a grant from the Nike School Innovation Fund, which runs out this year.
District officials say they want to keep the program alive, and Smith has pointed to Franklin's success as evidence of the district's "focused effort" to close its racial and economic achievement gaps. Other district officials have credited Franklin's success to Courageous Conversations, a $2.5 million racial sensitivity training program.
Bartley bristles at this suggestion, pointing out that the program was around for years before Courageous Conversations, and last November she asked district administrators to stop taking credit for a program they haven't funded.
"I can't peddle myself around, teach four classes and run this program. I'm almost at wit's end," Bartley says. "I see all these kids succeeding and getting into college, it's a dream come true. These kids have the faith to take five or six AP classes and work so hard. Why aren't they getting supported from the district?"
Bartley, 35, says she understands personally the transformative power of school. She describes herself as unfocused and headed in the wrong direction while growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. "I could have really gone off track," she says, "but my teachers had such high expectations for me, and that made a huge impact."
Backed by a federal grant, Bartley, James, school administrators and other teachers in 2007 looked for a way to emphasize acceleration, not remediation, to improve outcomes at Franklin. They discovered that students (especially those whose parents had not gone to college) were intimidated by the whole notion of higher ed, and realized those students needed more support in preparing for college.
The result was Advanced Scholar. Students can join anytime before their senior year. They must commit to four AP classes, maintain a 2.75 grade-point average, stay out of trouble and participate in at least two extracurricular activities (one has to be non-athletic). They meet with mentors twice a month and attend regular Advanced Scholar meetings, where they learn how to organize their time, apply for summer internships and decode financial aid forms. Tutors from Reed College are available every day after school.
Peer pressure brings a lot of students to their first Advanced Scholar meeting, and a sense of being part of something big keeps them there. Advanced Scholar graduates have a Facebook page where they write posts about college, answer questions and emphasize that current Franklin students have a legacy to uphold.
"It's gotten to the point where no one even asks if you are in Advanced Scholar anymore," says Jessica Robinson, a 17-year-old senior who says she knew she wanted to go to college but had no idea how to get there before she joined the program. " It's more surprising if you are not in it."
Bartley has done all this on a shoestring: The program pays teachers up to $45 to mentor students for one hour per month, but everyone agrees mentors spend far more time working with students. (Every administrator at Franklin is also a mentor, though they are not paid extra.) Bartley has spent money on a summer planning session and iPads, but also on such attention-getting efforts as Advance Scholar sweatshirts, distinctive graduation stoles, plus pizza and tacos for the monthly meetings.
The district's chief academic officer, Sue Ann Higgens, has suggested $50,000 for Advanced Scholar in next year's budget, and another $50,000 to Roosevelt and Madison high schools to start similar programs there. "The superintendent has charged me with improving our graduation rates and closing our racial opportunity gaps," says Higgens. "This is a strategy that I think anyone can see works toward that."
Bartley—who last June won the National Education Association's prestigious H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award for her work—says replicating success at other schools will require on-the-ground leadership, not planning imposed from the top.
Others agree. "We've all been through that cycle where the district gives you a half day of training, you land on the ground at 75 miles per hour, and then they give you two years to produce results," says Franklin science teacher and Advanced Scholar mentor Dave Sherden. "Advanced Scholar was a bottom-up thing, not top-down. It would be a huge mistake to try to implement this as a whole program."
Madison Principal Petra Callin says Advanced Scholar has great promise and that it would be a mistake to plunk it down in other schools as is. She's already removed prerequisites for enrolling in AP classes and is now looking at how Madison can accelerate learning for all students.
"If one structural thing worked and worked exactly the same everywhere, every school in the country, all schools, would be knocking it out of the park," Callin says. "There are a lot of things we know work, but how they work in any building is different place to place."
Brenda Ramirez, 17 and a senior who grew up speaking Spanish at home and was self-conscious of her vocabulary and accent, says she had assumed college was not in her future until she joined Advanced Scholar. She's already been accepted at Portland State and is waiting to hear from the other schools on her list.
âThis program,â Ramirez says, âlets you know you are equal to anybody.â