In 2002, Larry Dashiell became the principal of Jefferson High School. The place was a mess.

Less than 700 kids rattled around a building that served more than 1,000 in 1995. In 1997, Portland Public Schools had dissolved the entire staff and rebuilt it from scratch, but test scores remained abysmal. Rumors of closure haunted the school at North Killingsworth Street and Kerby Avenue, long the nexus of Portland's black community.

Meanwhile, a new generation of homeowners-many young and white-were snapping up the cheap, century-old bungalows around the school. Would their future children attend a school often associated with gang violence, truancy and decline? Or would George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, which forces districts to pay transportation costs for kids leaving underperforming schools, kill off Jefferson long before the newcomers had to make that choice?

Dashiell's answer to Jeff's challenges: radical surgery. Beginning this year, the school split into two mini-schools. Freshmen and sophomores start in an "academy" designed to shore up basic skills. A "middle college" funnels juniors and seniors into classes at Portland State University and Portland Community College or professional training programs.

Can the split change Jefferson's image? Thursday night, when Jeff hosts a forum open to anyone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods, an answer will start to take shape.

On the eve of the forum-where Dashiell and Portland superintendent Vicki Phillips will explain the two-schools concept-we talked to Jefferson's principal about No Child, a changing neighborhood and his school's future.

WW: Jefferson High School-some perceptions go along with that. This is the inner-city school. It's dangerous. It's violent. It's failing. Is overcoming perception the biggest challenge?

Larry Dashiell: People who haven't been in the building just have a "what they hear" mentality. You have to try to work through that. And you've had No Child Left Behind and all the things that come with it. Which is why you're here. People are always trying to find out what's wrong.

My wife and I live two blocks away. We bought our house a couple years ago. We don't have kids, and though we live two blocks away, don't have any connection to Jefferson except what we hear. So what do you tell people like me?

Simply this: If you live two blocks away, then why not send your child here? If you send your child here, doesn't the school change because you're part of it? How is the school itself more dangerous or less desirable than the community you choose to invest in? I don't understand that.

I don't have a very good answer to that.

That's the big question. Are your children still walking up and down the same streets between 3 and 10 at night? On Saturday and Sunday? It's not like being bussed into the middle of Watts. The same people who live here, just as they want to change their block, by bringing children to Jefferson and being involved, will change the school.

How'd you get here? What's your own educational story?

Well, I grew up on the East Coast, in New Jersey, just seven miles outside of New York City. So if one of the challenges of Jefferson is that it's an "urban" school, that's not a foreign concept to me. The high school I graduated from had four times more students than Jefferson. Then I went to Sterling College in Kansas, which is a rural school-

Whoa. How'd that happen?

Well, my brother had gone to a rural college in Nebraska, and he'd talk about the adventures he had doing that. I mean, it was hard at first-I went from looking at the New York skyline to looking at railroad tracks than ran off into the distance as far as the eye could see.

Some cultural dissonance, let's say.

Yeah, but a good kind. Then, after I graduated in the mid-'70s, I was involved in a training program for urban teachers in Wichita, where I was going on police ride-alongs, visiting homes, visiting churches-really kind of learning about what teaching at an urban school was all about.

How did Wichita lead to Portland?

There'd been a recruiter from Portland Public Schools out a few years before, and they let me know that a position became available. We moved out to Portland on a week's notice in 1979. I was at Franklin High for 16 years, doing all sorts of things. In '95, I renewed my administrative credentials and became a vice principal at Jefferson. Then, we had budget cuts and I was…released. Last in, first to move on, y'know? I came back to Jeff as a vice principal in 1997, but then the school was reconstituted and we were all laid off. In '98 and '99, Beaverton hired me to help open Southridge High School as a vice principal. Three years ago, I applied for this position.

Jefferson to Beaverton and back again? Must be a study in contrasts.

It is, in a lot of ways. In Beaverton, we had a brand-new, $40 million school. Everything down to the last staple was brand-new.

Give me an example-there must be something that happens at Jefferson and you think, "Man, this would never happen in Beaverton."

I was at Franklin for 16 years. Every single year something happened that never happened before. You're dealing with 13- to 18-year-olds-no such thing as a "never happen." But the technology-that was really like going from one extreme to another. Southridge, every teacher had two PCs. At Jefferson, the phone system is one of the oldest in the district. That makes a huge difference. Southridge had a full-time attendance person in the office. Washington County was still able to have a truancy officer. You can get fined if your kid doesn't go to school. And that is huge. Southridge has an unbelievable marching band-they're winning awards, and they've only been around for, what, five years? Portland had to put together a combined band just to enter the Rose Parade this year. Of course, in Beaverton, the kids are paying $575 to participate instead of $200, and there's a bigger parents group to fundraise.

It sounds stereotypical-it is stereotypical-but I would assume that parental involvement in Beaverton is a lot higher than it is at Jefferson. True?

Well, it's hard to say, because Southridge was really sort of a special case. You have the joy and the pride and the momentum of opening a new high school, and in Portland we haven't done that since the '70s. You have a year to plan. All the teachers have new ideas, and you're trying new things, and everyone's excited. That experience was great, but it really wouldn't compare even to other schools in Beaverton, let alone anywhere else.

So let's take away the comparison. How is parental involvement at Jefferson?

A lot of our folks are single parents-or maybe both parents work, or both parents work two jobs, even. A lot of our kids are getting much of their guidance from some of the agencies and groups that work with us. So there are some different things we deal with here. But in general, at the high-school level-and I don't care where you are-it's hard to keep parents involved. It's not like elementary school, where they're in the building all the time. High school, a lot of the kids are at the point where they'd rather not see their parents. And a lot of the parents are at the point where they have kids at different points in the system, so we have to be careful to coordinate what we schedule. If I'm doing something and Ockley Green is doing something and Tubman is doing something all the same week, that's gonna hurt our involvement. People work. I'll have parents come in for a conference after an all-night shift, but they can't do that every week.

Are we talking about the pressures on people's time in a low-income neighborhood?

You and I work at desks. We have phones by our elbows all the time. In other work environments, maybe you don't have a phone all the time. You might have your 15 minutes at morning break or 15 minutes at afternoon break, maybe lunch. So some of the things we do involve extending the school day. We have a secretary who's here until 5 pm and after-school tutoring programs for kids-you know, not fun-and-games programs.

Do you have people who are coming to you, wanting to work there?

Oh, I get letters all the time. People are always asking if there are openings. There's been some feel-good for me, in that colleagues I've worked with in the past, people who I really respect, have inquired about coming here.

Are those people mostly looking for the challenge of teaching at Jefferson-or, let's say, the challenge of an urban school?

They're looking for the enjoyment of working in a progressive environment. Why do people go anywhere? Why do people move from Chicago or New York to Portland? I don't think a missionary approach is really the right way to look at what we do here-there are different challenges in every different environment. At the same time, Jefferson is Jefferson. There's really nothing to compare it to until you get to Seattle, the Bay Area or Denver.

If part of the answer to Jefferson's problems is the move to two schools in one, can you explain how that works?

We instituted that in our freshmen academy to focus on basic skills a few years ago, and then we started our sophomore academy. Regardless of where our kids come in-whether they're meeting, exceeding, low or below low-they all move forward. No one's stagnating and moving backwards. We wanted to capitalize on that acceleration. So we instituted our middle college for juniors and seniors. That means working with PCC and PSU. And we've had a health-science and biotech program here for years. Many of the hospitals-Emanuel, Providence, OHSU-are great partners. It's one of the best-kept secrets here. So we had a lot of those pieces, but people were asking, "Do you offer the rigor?"

What do you think of No Child Left Behind?

The best part of the law is the focus on the individual student and how he or she, as a person, is doing. The bad part is that it doesn't look at the growth of that person at all. You're tested in 10th grade, and then the next year, a whole new crop of 10th-graders is tested. If they measured how kids do from the time they come to Jefferson to the time they leave, we would do quite well. No Child Left Behind doesn't acknowledge that. So it's kind of a strange way to evaluate a school, in my opinion.

Every teacher I know hates standardized tests. But they're integral to NCLB and how schools are evaluated. What do you think of them?

The challenge is, what do the kids need to know by the time they take the test? Y'know, there's what you need to know to survive on Jeopardy! There's what you need to know to make it in life. And there's what you need to know to make through high school. Figuring out how to teach all those different pieces is the challenge. The books may say, "Here's where kids should be at such-and-such a time." But then the standardized test they have to take has Algebra I and Geometry II on it, so you better make sure they've had those things before the test. That's the big issue, just the planning it imposes.

And it's not like the SAT, where you know that if you take it in Oregon or in Maryland it's the same test. Every state has different tests and standards, and some states test people at different times. Some states test juniors, not sophomores. But No Child Left Behind imposes the same standards on everyone, which is that if you don't meet the state benchmark, whatever they are, there are…what's a better word than punishment?

Uh-jeez, Larry, I don't know. Sanctions?

Sanctions is fine…how about corrective action?

Corrective action it is.

The corrective action doesn't take into account when the test was given or what the test is. But, again, what's good about the system is that it's opened our eyes to looking at how individual kids are doing at a point in time. My question would be, are there ways you could help us do what we need to do beyond simply telling all the kids they can leave?

Jefferson's been shrinking for a long time. Is there a level where you have too few kids to continue to function?

I think if there was no chance of growth, I would say yes, the school could die. But there's a good chance of growth. Our goal is to try to add another 400 students to the campus. The way of doing that we're looking at would be to add a third school, so you have three schools of 400. Now, this isn't with the superintendent's blessing or anything-this is just Larry talking. We already have a performing-arts program, and it's strongest in dance. We could create a performing-arts school, with dance, music and theater, and grow that along with the freshman-sophomore academy and the middle college.

That raises the question of whether Jefferson will continue to be what it has been, which is the core high school of Portland's black community. Do these opportunities for growth mean the school has to leave that identity behind?

It involves stepping beyond that, simply because of you moving into the neighborhood-and we would love to have your child. And there a lot of folks who look like you moving into the neighborhood, and we would like to have their children, as well as the children of the people who have traditionally been in the community. We can't change who's buying homes, who's moving into the community. What would be nice would be to see some more folks with 13- to 17-year-olds move in. Unfortunately I think a lot more people with zero-year-olds are moving in. But that part we can't control, either.

Jefferson High School hosts a neighborhood forum at 6 pm Thursday, Jan. 20. All residents of the surrounding North/Northeast Portland neighborhoods are invited.