This term we had the pleasure and the opportunity to fundraise for Open School East. Open School is a rigorous, college-prep school that caters to students that have struggled in the public school system. The students are referred to Open School through six partnering school districts if they meet two of three criteria: 1) below benchmark in either reading or math, 2) failing 2 or more core subject classes, or 3) 2 or more suspensions (or 3 referrals for “suspendable behavior”). 84% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch and 55% are students of color. Despite the fact that these students often come to Open School behind in their classes, the average student gains 2-3 grade levels in math AND reading in a single academic year, which is amazing! Matt Ross, the principal, stressed to our group that although the students who attend Open School were referred for negative behavior or bad grades, Open School is NOT an alternative school or a behavior school. They have incredibly high expectations for their students and push them to finish rigorous classes and to attend college.
Open School East is funded through a combination of public funding, donations, and fundraising. Because they are partly privately funded, they have more flexibility with their curriculum and are allowed to be innovative. They stress the importance of the school as a community, the curriculum is culturally relevant, and they have longer days so students can make up what they might have missed earlier in their education. The majority of their staff are people of color, and they have tutors and advocates for each student. However, because the school is funded only partially with public funds, they do have to raise money through donations and fundraisers. Additionally, because so many of the students at Open School are low-income, there is a food scarcity problem, and, during the winter a clothing scarcity problem as well. Because Open School’s need is constant, as a group we thought it would be most beneficial to create lasting relationships between businesses near Open School East and Open School. We wanted to honor Open School’s commitment to community by directly engaging and including the community in our project.
One of the key structures of our group is that we remained focused on the community in which we are serving and acknowledging that we fall under the category of “privileged service learners”. We, as Portland State University seniors, were given the opportunity to create an event that we felt would improve the lives of the students of Open School East. At first we felt uneasy coming in as an outsider and dictating what these students wanted and needed, that we were assuming their struggles and would get everything wrong. We discussed our proposed event with the principle of Open School East and it seemed we hit the nail on the head. We were informed that food drives have been held in the past and had not only been a huge success but also a great aid to the students and their families. We proceeded with our proposed event, switching it to include clothing and outside vendors from the local area and downtown Portland. The thing that separates this event from becoming an act of charity is that we are leaving the resources and businesses completely in the hands of the community. As four individuals that do not live in this neighborhood, we can not say “this is best” or “this is how it should be done”, it wouldn’t be right and it would leave the students at the misery of outsiders. Our one and only goal is to truly help build a bound between local businesses and this amazing school. We want nothing more than for these students to feel they can reach out to their community for drives and fundraisers after this PIC project is done.
Sadly, we had very little luck in getting any businesses to commit to maintaining a relationship with Open School. We all called several businesses and several of us went in person to pitch the idea, but there was little interest in supporting the school, be it from lack of funds, lack of time to talk more about it, or disinterest. We learned that fundraising is challenging in itself, as we all felt very passionate about Open School and our goals, but were frustrated when store owners and managers did not share our passion. Our team struggled with a lack of success, which can halt a project and bring down morale, but we are confident that next term’s students will be able to find success. We have given them a list of contact information for businesses that are close to Open School East and are hoping that they plan a food exchange event in order to maximize the amount of food and money that can be raised. We had originally planned to do the event ourselves, but we had problems getting a hold of the principal of Open School, which stalled our planning. Throughout this process, we have learned a lot about coordinating across time and space (it’s hard) and that even the best hypothetical plan can fail in reality. It was an incredible learning process and we hope that next term’s students can learn as much as we did while also helping Open School as much as possible!
Here are some links that are great resources for food scarcity and learning more about Open School: