Last month, the Parkrose High campus resembled an occupied territory.
Cops, drug-sniffing dogs and a fleet of television-news trucks descended on the outer Northeast Portland high school after a string of violent events.
It began in the early-morning hours of Sept. 4, when gunfire aimed at the homes of two warring Parkrose students ripped through neighborhood streets.
Eight days later, at a Wendy's adjacent to the high school, a group of African-American students faced off with a group of Asians and Caucasians. On the way back to school after lunch, witnesses say, they hurled words like "nigger," "chink" and "cracker."
Shortly afterwards, the taunts escalated into a brawl just inside the school's front doors. Parkrose Principal Roy Reynolds, a red-bearded fireplug recently hired from Molalla High, was in the school cafeteria when the fight erupted nearby between about 20 students. "When I got out there, they were going at it toe-to-toe," Reynolds says.
Less than an hour later, many of the same kids pounded on each other again in a different part of the school, stopping only when 14 squad cars arrived.
Reynolds suspended 19 students, clamped down on movement within the building, ordered all but a couple of the school's 26 doors locked and requisitioned surveillance cameras. For days, uniformed cops patrolled the campus while detectives worked the neighborhood.
On Sept. 15, somebody emptied a .32 caliber pistol into a Jeep Cherokee driven by a 16-year-old Parkrose High student named Alex Coopersmith.
Three days later, detectives searched the apartment of Coopersmith's girlfriend and seized marijuana plants, a 9 mm pistol, five assault rifles and enough ammo to outfit a small army. The couple was subsequently arrested and remain in custody.
On one level, last month's events represent little more than a drug-related dispute that took on racial overtones. But such an explanation utterly fails to address a larger reality. During a time in which many Portland neighborhoods, from Sellwood to St. Johns, the east side's choicest suburb has spiraled into a decline marked by poverty and crime. And while high schools similar to Parkrose have made significant progress, what was once one of the state's proudest campuses has virtually collapsed.
Parkrose's deterioration has been so rapid and so camouflaged by trappings of stability that few people have noticed. Until now.
For families coming from the inner city or foreign countries, the Parkrose neighborhood might seem like a dream: a shiny new high school surrounded by rolling fields and well-kept residential streets.
That package was appealing to Travis Johnson, a 17-year-old senior, and his family, who last year moved to Parkrose from the inner Northeast neighborhood of Concordia.
They came, in part, to escape guns and gangs and guys who took offense at the wrong-colored shirt. "One time, our house got shot up for no reason," Johnson says. "Where we used to live, there was drugs and police activity all the time. It's quieter out here."
Johnson has more reason than most to reflect on risks of flying bullets. His father was shot to death in Northeast Portland when Johnson was four.
A soft-spoken kid with a toothy grin and a fondness for Air Jordans and Rocawear, Johnson spends his free time playing hoops or reading history and sports on the Internet. He is an unapologetic Damon Stoudamire fan who likes to listen to Jammin 95.5 or Jay-Z when he's driving his Isuzu Rodeo.
For the 5-foot-11-inch point guard, who hopes to lead Parkrose's basketball team this year, one of the bonuses of his new surroundings is Parkrose's gym, completed along with the rest of the school in 1997. The springy floor has no dead spots, he says, and is immaculately maintained. "It's always shining. Nothing like it in the PIL," he says, referring to the 10 high schools in the Portland district.
Parkrose, the city's newest high school, bears scant resemblance to Jefferson, the 94-year-old North Portland school that Johnson once attended. While Jefferson is surrounded by urban bleakness, Parkrose High's six-acre campus is adjacent to Rossi Farms, where red barns and 25 acres of black Columbia River floodplain soil bursting with corn, squash and pumpkins lend a rural feel.
Across 122nd Avenue from Rossi's pumpkin patch, the high school's floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of Mount Hood's jagged silhouette and the flat top of Mount St. Helens.
The school dominates its immediate surroundings. A 75-foot fly loft, which hoists sets for the school's 600-seat theatre, soars like a beacon above campus. Operations manager Terry Franceschi says Parkrose's theater is second to none in the metro area except for those operated by the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.
When President George W. Bush came to Portland in 2002, Parkrose was the only high school he visited, and it's not hard to see why.
But Travis Johnson has learned that although Parkrose boasts wired classrooms, a sophisticated closed-circuit television network and art studios that any other public school would envy, it also suffers from a host of problems that no school wants.
There are great kids at Parkrose High, doing lots of great things (see "Building Hopes at Parkrose," page 22). But assessed purely by the numbers, the school is close to the bottom of the barrel.
Last year, for instance, Parkrose posted a higher dropout rate higher than Jefferson, a much-chronicled standard bearer for academic underperformance (see chart, page 19). Parkrose's dropout rate was twice that of David Douglas, a neighboring school district with similar demographics, and highest of the eight districts in Multnomah County.
The majority of students who stay in school at Parkrose are not college-bound. In 2002, according to school figures, fewer than 20 percent of Parkrose seniors even bothered to take the SAT test, a prerequisite for most four-year colleges. At David Douglas, 36 percent took the test; at Jefferson, the number was 28 percent.
Parkrose Superintendent Mike Taylor, who took over the district in 1999, acknowledges that the dropouts are excessive and SAT participation is anemic. He says that for years the school geared its programs for an ever-smaller stream of college prep students and set its expectations for others too low. "When the state and other school districts were paying attention to higher standards, this district wasn't," Taylor says.
Research shows that academic performance is closely correlated to economic status, so it would be unfair to compare Parkrose to Lake Oswego. But even when comparing apples to apples, Parkrose looks sickly.
Its results on state tests lag well behind those at high schools in two neighboring districts--David Douglas and Reynolds--that have similar levels of students receiving free and reduced school lunch, the most common measure of student poverty.
On the report cards handed out by the state Department of Education last January, Parkrose High scored toward the low end of "poor," barely missing the mark of "unacceptable." Reynolds earned a "satisfactory" rating, while David Douglas ranked "strong."
In areas less easily measurable, Parkrose students say there's also much room for improvement.
"There's more drugs and alcohol here," says Johnson. "A lot of kids like to smoke [marijuana] before they come to school or during the day. You don't see as much of that at other schools I was at."
Tony Ngo, a senior who has attended school in both the Reynolds and David Douglas districts, says he thinks kids are allowed to get away with more at Parkrose. "The other schools I've been at are a lot stricter," Ngo says.
Parkrose High's performance problems extend beyond its classrooms and hallways. Its winless football team has been outscored 246 to 19 this season and has not beaten a Mount Hood Conference foe since 1992, running up a string of 63 consecutive conference losses.
Johnson played football at Jefferson as a freshman, but, like a lot of good athletes at Parkrose, he prefers watching from the stands to putting on the pads. "Who wants to play for a team that always loses?" he asks.
Parkrose High School does not exist in a vacuum. The problems reflected in the school's performance are symptoms of the larger forces overwhelming the neighborhood.
Over the past decade, a number of Portland neighborhoods, such as Hawthorne, Sellwood and Sabin, have seen property values soar with an influx of upwardly mobile homebuyers. If there's a flip side of gentrification, Parkrose is it.
Once--and not so long ago--Parkrose was the West Linn of the east side. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, big lots and a property-tax-rich school district attracted families.
"When my parents moved here from Chicago, they chose Parkrose because of an article saying it was one of the 10 best school districts in the country," recalls Kris Vanderburg, who graduated from Parkrose High in 1967 and taught in the district for more than 30 years.
"In the '80s, Parkrose was about the richest district in the state in terms of tax base per student," says superintendent Taylor.
But today, Parkrose is the only neighborhood on the outer east side to have been designated as a "Target Area" by the city of Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development. The designation, which was based on concentrations of poverty as defined by census data, covers the stretch bordered by Northeast Prescott Street and Sandy Boulevard and between I-205 and 122nd Avenue.
"It's one of the least expensive areas in Portland, so there are a lot of immigrant groups and people coming here who have been displaced by gentrification," says Richard Bixby of the East Portland Neighborhood Office.
With increased poverty have come drugs, prostitution and violence. Today, the crime rate in the Parkrose neighborhood, which includes the high school, is a third higher than the average in outer East Portland neighborhoods and higher overall in terms of violent crimes than Lents, which has long suffered a reputation as a center of eastside lawlessness (see chart, page 19).
When Portland police detectives began sorting through the events leading to the fights at the high school, they found a connection to two earlier neighborhood burglaries in which a total of 21 guns were stolen.
Sgt. David Anderson, one of the investigating officers, says that such a haul of weapons is hardly remarkable in Parkrose. "If people broke into 10 houses around there and got less than 50 guns, I'd be surprised," Anderson says.
A 1981 graduate of Parkrose High, Anderson says he no longer recognizes the community where he grew up. He's particularly disappointed in the responses of parents who he thinks could lead him to the missing guns. "There's a general unwillingness to be cooperative. I've never seen anything like it," says Anderson, a 19-year veteran of the Police Bureau.
The dark side of Parkrose has caught Travis Johnson by surprise. Coming into his senior year, Johnson says he felt pretty good about leaving the 'hood behind. But the brawls and drive-by shootings make him wonder how far he has really traveled. "It was shocking to me," Johnson says. "I never thought stuff like that would go down out here."
It would be impossible to talk about the changes in Parkrose without acknowledging race. In many Portland neighborhoods, racial diversity is an old story, but in Parkrose, the influx of minorities and recent immigrants has happened almost overnight.
Not long ago, minority kids such as Travis Johnson and Tony Ngo would have been anomalies. "Only in the late '80s did the school district become less than 98 percent Caucasian," reads a history on the school district's website.
Today, minority students make up more than 30 percent of the high school's enrollment, and a large percentage of those classified as white are recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.
These newcomers to Parkrose have been slow to join traditional community structures, such as neighborhood associations and the Parkrose School Board, which remains all-white.
When Taylor and Reynolds held a community meeting Oct. 2 to discuss trouble at the high school, they searched in vain to come up with existing forums where people of various cultures and races come together regularly in the neighborhood. "We weren't able to identify any," Taylor says. "The new groups are not enfranchised."
The lack of integration with longtime residents--who are disproportionately white senior citizens--cuts two ways. It leaves newcomers strangers to the structures and institutions meant to serve them, and it contributes to misunderstanding.
Carol Williams, president of the Parkrose Heights Association of Neighborhoods, says even seemingly trivial differences can create tension. "We have a big community of Russians here," Williams says. "When they walk to church on Saturday afternoon, they tend to walk in the street and not move out of the way when cars come."
Sometimes communication gaps present serious challenges. Detectives who searched Alex Coopersmith's girlfriend's apartment and found weapons were stymied for 36 hours because the girl's family only speaks a Lao dialect and the cops could not find a translator.
There's no single explanation for how Parkrose ended up in such a fix. But many of the changes that longtime residents describe could be lumped together under the description "loss of local control."
For a lot of people, Parkrose's decline began in 1983 when it was annexed by the City of Portland. Annexation meant higher taxes, sewer-hookup costs and land-use laws that cannibalized large lots and transformed farmland into block after block of cheap apartments.
If annexation weren't painful enough, the 1990 statewide shift in K-12 funding from property taxes to equally distributed income taxes cost Parkrose its big advantage over neighboring districts.
In 1990, for instance, Parkrose spent 39 percent more per student than neighboring Reynolds. Today, Reynolds actually spends a little more than Parkrose, according to state figures.
Perhaps in reaction to declining control, a group of anti-government zealots hijacked two local neighborhood associations and the Parkrose School Board in the late '90s.
The School Board's dysfunction regularly made news, virtually bringing the district to a halt for a couple of years. Meanwhile, the city became so disgusted with the Parkrose Association of Neighbors that it took the rare step of decertifying the organization.
"That group was just anti-everything," says Bonnie McKnight, a longtime neighborhood resident. "They drove a lot of good people away, and we lost the expectation of excellence for Parkrose."
Voters twice rejected a bond measure to fund the new high school. The measure's eventual passage caused considerable bitterness and left district residents with the highest property-tax rates among Multnomah County school districts.
The new building was designed to reunite the school and neighborhood. It included a community center for non-school users, a community policing center and a branch of the Multnomah County Library.
But the reunification effort failed. The community center is lightly used, the community policing center lost funding, and, in August 2002, the library closed due to lack of use.
Basketball practice has started now, and Travis Johnson plays indoors instead of at Argay Park, where somebody shot up Alex Coopersmith's jeep last month.
Johnson got interim grades recently--mostly A's and B's. He hopes that the tranquility he and his family sought in Parkrose will return. But like many others in the school and in the neighborhood, he worries that the troubles that broke out last month are not over.
"It seems like everywhere I go, this kind of stuff just surrounds me," he says.
Budding Hopes in Parkrose
If Parkrose High School were measured only by statistics, it would be easy to be glum. But behind the numbers are some reasons for hope.
Parkrose's 100-member marching band and its dance team would be the envy of many local high schools. The school's choir has been invited to perform in New York's Carnegie Hall in May.
And no numbers can measure the strength and determination of students such as Richelle Elliott, a senior who plays soccer, writes editorials for the school newspaper, participates in mock trial competitions and is a member of the National Honor Society despite having been legally homeless for four years.
Elliott, who has attended more than 20 schools because of constant moves, is tough, direct and weary of the negative portrayals of her school. "People characterize us as a bunch of hoodlums, but my years at Parkrose have been some of my best," says the 16-year old, who carries a 3.4 GPA and hopes to become a veterinarian.
Elliott's enthusiasm for Parkrose is matched by Roy Reynolds, the school's new principal. A military brat who grew up in a culture of diversity and transience that mirrors Parkrose's, Reynolds says that he has what he needs to succeed--a boss and a staff who are committed to reform. He was undeterred when only 14 parents attended a community meeting to discuss the hostilities between students. "That's 14 victories, and we'll build from there," he says.
Reynolds wishes the fights never happened, but rather than going into coverup mode as some administrators might do, he's facing Parkrose's problems head-on. "Kids learn from what's real, and this gave us an opportunity to discuss violence, drugs and race, which are all facts of life in the 21st century," says Reynolds. "It gave us one hell of a teachable moment."
The Parkrose School District is located in Portland but is separate from Portland Public Schools. It serves about 3,600 students.
The Parkrose District draws from the Argay, Parkrose, Parkrose Heights, Russell, Sumner, Woodland Park and Hazelwood neighborhoods, as well as the city of Maywood Park.
The newest high school in the Portland Public Schools District is Marshall, built in 1960.
In 2002, three students at Parkrose Junior High, just across the street from the high school, broke 23 windows and left a note threatening administrators' lives.
Despite its name, the 1,187-acre Parkrose neighborhood doesn't actually include a single public park. (A foreclosed one-acre brownfield at 112th Avenue and Northeast Prescott Street has been designated for park use but remains fenced off.)