Read the original story in The Oregonian here.
Wednesday is the day Will Parker consistently shows up to school. It's when Sarah Purdy sticks around the whole day. It's the day Brett Quigley smiles.
Wednesday is the day these and 22 other students at Centennial Learning Center, an alternative school, go to Portland State University's art building in downtown Portland. College students in the graphic design program present a lesson and art project and mentor their visiting high school students.
The Centennial School District school of about 125 students, most low-income, has a 24 percent graduation rate. Most of the school's students are autistic or have behavioral problems; some have particularly terrible home lives.
"Almost no one in this room has a parent or adult guardian who's been to college," said Conrad Schumacher, a CLC instructor. "These are kids who are lost. A lot of these students never get past 122nd Avenue. We want to make them part of a bigger world."
Educators call the partnership Friendtorship. They want to expand the mentor-based curriculum to other subjects and schools, part of PSU's greater mission to improve public education and increase the number of high school students who go on to college.
In the Friendtorship classroom, diverging from instructions is creativity. Yelling out an answer is participating. Mentors are interested in artwork, not school credits.
"You find out a kid was at CLC because he was fighting every day or was suicidal," said Ethan Smith, 36, a PSU graphic design student in the Friendtorship class. "In this room, they're not those people. They're not defined by age, class or past. It's an equal playing field -- something these kids don't usually get."
Schumacher and Liz Charman, PSU professor, started Friendtorship three years ago.
"I wanted to see graphic design work toward social change, not just support corporate power," Charman said. "If we bring a lot of kids in, think about what that would do for getting kids to go to college. Art is an easy access point for kids. But what about science and math?"
Finding a voice
The art class teaches techniques and vocabulary students may see on state standardized tests. But on Wednesdays "they're learning how they affect people," Schumacher said. "For them to get out and see, 'I can have an impact, my voice is important' -- that's so important."
Brett Quigley, 18, is autistic. He's usually silent and stoic. In Friendtorship, he chats and smiles. In one class he held up a sheet of paper with a hole cut out of the middle, put it up to his face and said, "Look, I'm a map," and made a goofy face.
Will Parker, 17, articulate with a quick smile, "made some not-good decisions and fell behind" at Centennial High to end up at CLC, he said. He comes from crushing poverty and a difficult home life, teachers say, and fell in with the wrong crowd.
But he's bright and friendly, and in his first year in Friendtorship is part of what he calls the "Secret Society of Really Tall People." In his art he's ambitious; a collage he made proclaimed, "forward-minded, be legendary, light it up."
Sarah Purdy, 16, has been in the class three years. She avoids eye contact and says random things like, "My favorite words are 'mine' and 'pancakes.'" She has an encyclopedic knowledge of unexpected topics, like Batman and flags.
And she comes from a rough home, where food is scarce and tensions are high.
"I haven't been going to school very often," she said. Teachers say she comes for breakfast and usually disappears.
Except for Wednesday.
"It's the highlight of my week," Purdy said. "It helps me forget about the rest of my week. It's really good to have art in my life; it's good to talk to people."
Educators debate whether students who are absent except for Friendtorship should be able to go to PSU. Schumacher is resolute: Allowing such students to go will help in the long run, whether academically or personally.
"We're raising the potential of everyone in this room," he said. "If all year round you're around someone who's drunk and screaming, that's going to affect you. We get them out of bad environments and let them feel important."
College students develop their art project at a two-hour class on Mondays. They can't spend more than $40 on materials, so they lend their skills. For example, they carve wood bases and poles for the "Capture Your Flag" lesson in which students made a flag about themselves.
The resulting lessons are fast-paced and fun -- for students, by students.
"Oregon stuck a beaver on the back of a flag," said Nate Gale, 36, teaching the lesson.
"Because Beavers are the (best)," a high school student interjected.
The class' only prerequisite is to be consistent, accountable and present, students say.
"Some art students here want to be educators; some want their art to mean something," Charman said.
For the first time this year, the college class is arranging a gallery show at SoHiTek in Northwest Portland. The show, "I Am Here," opens Dec. 6 and will showcase CLC students' work and sell postcards, zines, jars, sketchbooks and posters to raise money for the program.
Each piece of student art is an expression of self, regardless of whether the student is art inclined, mentors say.
In the flag activity, some were literal representations of themselves, some abstract, said Cielle Charron, 21, a PSU student. But interestingly, they all emphasized colors for their meaning, such as blue for peace, red for power.
"Most kids took theirs home," she said. "I thought that was really important; they're hoisting up a flag to say, 'This is me.'"
Shrines of themselves
Another project, filling jars with objects and beans that, when shaken, make a seek-and-find game, transformed mostly into "shrines of themselves," mentors said.
The high school students picked out trinkets and then wrote down the significance of each object, creating a key for their jar.
PSU student Trent Edwards, 25, said his mentee carefully placed her items in the jar and labeled it "do not shake."
"They get to do whatever they want," Edwards said. "They stay inside the guidelines, but they think outside the box."
Teachers look at the alternative school students' responses as steeped in meaning -- seeking stability, building relationships and trust and discovering their potential.
Students say it's simpler than that: The class is fun and they like their mentors.
Still, "I want my art to say something about me," said Parker, his collage of ambition on the table. Parker hesitated a bit when he admitted he wants to be in archeologist, like Indiana Jones, so he can travel the world.
Schumacher didn't know about that goal. If it wasn't a Wednesday, he probably never would.