Cover Story
PERSONAL COMMITMENT: SouthLake Church members gardening and cleaning at Roosevelt High School in Portland.
Leah Nash/The New York Times/Redux
PERSONAL COMMITMENT: SouthLake Church members gardening and cleaning at Roosevelt High School in Portland.

Portland public

Back to School | Seeking the peace of a very liberal city by helping to rejuvenate a deteriorating school

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore.—Roosevelt High School is in a poor area of Portland, but the beautiful brick building, surrounded by trees and a well-maintained lawn, projects a safe and well-ordered atmosphere. That hasn’t always been the case.

Seven years ago, a lawn overgrown by weeds and a derelict track suggested deeper struggles, and Roosevelt was on a list of potential closures. It was the school where parents did not want their children.

Seven years ago SouthLake Church, located in West Linn, an affluent Portland suburb, also had a problem. Many members wanted to help the poor not in the abstract, not just by sending checks, but through personal commitment. Many were tired of seeing Christians depicted as the people who were always against something.

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Luis Palau was already a well-known name in Portland: His evangelism-oriented festivals, featuring speakers and music, had been drawing large crowds to the city’s waterfront since 1999. But Luis and his son Kevin, who is now president of the Luis Palau Association, wanted to serve too, and not only preach. (See “Pioneering Palaus,” June 14.) Roosevelt seemed a perfect place to start. 

When SouthLake Pastor Kip Jacobs received Kevin Palau’s call to help Roosevelt, he did more than say yes. He requested that his church take over the project. Palau said that was fine, as long as the church could start by fielding a few hundred people for a cleanup day. When the day came, around 1,500 church members showed up to landscape, clean, and wash windows.

But that would have been just a gesture, apart from what followed. Church member Kristine Sommers began working with the Roosevelt staff to see whether SouthLake could help in other ways. Some were material: Clothing donations to expand Roosevelt’s clothes closet. Restarting the school’s food pantry. Then came tutoring and mentoring. Sommers soon occupied full-time office space at Roosevelt to help coordinate the influx of volunteers from the church.

Some programs have flopped. Three years ago SouthLake planned to launch a mentorship program with the entire freshman class. The church had plenty of enthusiastic volunteers, but a lack of preparation, communication, and training sunk the big idea. But other projects—a barbecue at the football team’s homecoming game, a renovation of the school’s track, tutoring—worked. Support in noneducational areas allow teachers and students to focus on studies.

Seven years ago, it was difficult to interest Roosevelt girls in the biggest city event of the year, the Rose Festival. They saw Rose Festival princesses as blond, blue-eyed, and rich. But SouthLake mentors talked with Roosevelt girls about etiquette, true value, and self-esteem. They helped the girls with their hair, makeup, and dresses. Today, Roosevelt is the place to be to see the princess crowned.

For the past few summers, SouthLake has had barbecues for the community on the Roosevelt lawn. The church provides food, live music, and face painting for the community. This summer, other local churches from Roosevelt’s neighborhood have stepped in to take turns hosting the barbecue.

A new, smaller pilot mentorship program with the football team is beginning this semester. The new mentorship program divides the students into small groups, with about six students per mentor, to focus on the church’s strongpoint—building relationships. While they hope to expand the program in the future, focusing in on the football team allows the church to focus on training and matching the mentors carefully.

The results of the combined effort are evident. Between 2010 and 2013 reading scores went up by 37 percent and math scores by 24.7 percent. Four-year graduation rates have jumped 21 percent over the last three years. Enrollment is up 33 percent, setting the school up for sustained growth.

The success at Roosevelt has led to similar church-school partnerships in other parts of the state: 252 schools in 16 school districts are now involved. Local governments are accepting help from churches in other ways as well. About 75 evangelical churches in the Portland metropolitan area serve in the foster system through a program called Embrace Oregon. Churches partner with the state Department of Human Services to clean up the often run-down offices where foster kids come, and to make welcome packets for them.

Kevin Palau recalls how he went into a DHS office and explained that the churches were grateful for the work DHS staffers are doing. He asked how church members could help make the staffers’ jobs easier. The woman at the desk burst into tears: No one had ever expressed gratitude or asked that question before.

Palau says that if the evangelical community can work with city leaders in one of America’s most liberal cities, they can do it anywhere. He’s worked with Sam Adams, the openly gay former mayor of Portland. Both were nervous at their first meeting, and Adams says he received pushback from the LGBT community in Portland at first, but it died as people realized evangelicals were willing to serve alongside them, not just preach at them.

—Rachel Lynn Aldrich is a WORLD intern

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