By Betsy Hammond
For Felicia Davis, the low point of high school came at age 15, when she clashed with her foster parents and was sent to live in an institutional setting.
For Dequandre Johnson, who never knew either of his parents, it was the death of his older brother as he began freshman year.
For Sherice Smith, also an orphan, the test came when she was diagnosed with cancer her sophomore year and school officials wouldn’t help her keep up with her classes while she underwent chemotherapy.
Yet those three African American Portland teenagers — and scores like them — are part of an astonishing success story that has kept them on track in high school, college and life.
As families and neighborhoods contorted and collapsed around them, they have been raised unfailingly well by African American professionals at a decades-old North Portland nonprofit, Self Enhancement Inc. They emerge well-spoken and well-loved, with solid values and work ethics.
Those results have gotten national notice. Self Enhancement’s program is one of just 18 nationwide endorsed by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation of New York, which vets programs that help young people raised in poverty to find those that deliver.
How it works
Each year, typically as early as second grade, SEI asks teachers to identify a few dozen African American students at schools in inner North and Northeast Portland judged to be at greatest risk of failing to finish high school. Any child with an older brother or sister in the program gets the nod as well.
About one-tenth have two parents, good grades and a sure path to college. But the overwhelming majority live in troubled single-parent families or with a guardian. Many have a relative in prison. More are affected by addiction or gang violence.
They are invited to join Self Enhancement’s “core program.” It offers them year-round tutoring, enrichment and mentoring until they graduate from high school, with follow-up services until they turn 25. A full-time coordinator based in their school helps them set and reach goals, monitors their grades and homework, and is there to offer advice and hugs.
Two days a week, students spend hours at Self Enhancement’s gleaming North Portland center, getting everything from a healthy dinner and piano lessons to homework help and group bonding. Every summer, they spend six weeks in a full-day enrichment program, first as students, then, beginning sophomore year, as paid counselors helping the younger kids.
Together, the team at SEI raises its children exactly as you would — if you were perfect, had lots of money, always saw the lovable child behind the exasperating teen and never lost sight of your goals: Instill respect, self-determination, drive and honesty. Ensure the child graduates from high school. Keep working to make sure the young adult goes to college and becomes a positive, contributing member of society.
Felicia Davis graduated from Jefferson High in June and is majoring in psychology at Portland State University. Dequandre Johnson is a freshman at Western Oregon University, also studying psychology and aiming for a Ph.D. Sherice Smith is a senior at Jefferson, poised to graduate in June and working toward attending a good college.
Like others in the core program, they say they couldn’t have done it without SEI.
“For a child who is struggling, a good relationship with an adult, not being picked at and nagged at, can take a child a long way. They took me in with open arms, and that is what kept me going,” Davis says. “My coordinator would say, ‘I know you. You can do better than this.’ And I wanted to live up to that.”
For Johnson, the importance of SEI was made plain when he transferred to Wilson High one year. He no longer got regular check-ins with a school coordinator or twice-weekly sessions at SEI in the evenings. He started skipping school, first a little, then a lot.
“And honestly, my teachers didn’t care,” he says. “To them, I was just another black kid who is going to drop out.”
Back at Jefferson the next year, he was back in the Self Enhancement fold — and boy did he know it. “As soon as I get a C on one paper, my in-school coordinator would call me down: ‘What is this?’… They make you realize what you’ve just done. ‘You said a 3.5 (grade-point average) was your goal. How can you reach your goal with this grade?'”
Started small and grew
The program is the brainchild of Tony Hopson Sr., Self Enhancement’s 56-year-old founder and president. As a teacher, counselor and coach in Portland schools in the 1980s, he started looking out for small groups of black students who needed a more positive adult presence in their lives.
His informal mentorship morphed into a formal program at Jefferson High, then grew to serve students in the elementary and middle schools that feed to Jefferson plus high school graduates until they turn 25.
Originally, students who moved out of Portland or chose a high school other than Jefferson were dropped. Later, the program expanded so participants who choose Benson or Grant high schools continue to benefit.
The program has existed largely in its current form since about 1990, featuring the same key elements: Six core standards every participant must try to live by. An SEI-paid coordinator based in every core school. After-school and summer tutoring and enrichment. Incentives such as dinners in nice restaurants, outings to museums, snowboarding and water parks. College tours to elite historically black colleges in the Southeast. High behavior expectations, from no sagging pants to greeting adults with a handshake. Help for parents and grandparents who need a hand paying the gas bill, getting a family member into treatment or interceding at school.
“We are Mama and Daddy for these kids,” Hopson says.
Tre Redeau, a 2010 Grant High graduate majoring in business at Western Oregon, says the extent of services changes every student in the program.
“SEI puts so much on the table for you, you want to behave,” he says. “And they do not play. You can call them in the middle of the night, and they do not care. They are there for you.”
Hopson says the magic ingredient that makes the program so successful is hiring “the right who.”
Coordinators must see the work as a mission, not a job, and are expected to be on call to help any child on their caseload 24/7, he says. They attend football games, music performances and other events like any proud parent would — even when they have more than 25 students on their caseload.
“The job is more like a way of life,” says Troy Hollis, SEI manager of high school programs. “We have a vested interest in these kids.”
Only those who have worked the front lines as coordinators can become supervisors in the core program. And until this fall, only African Americans had been hired to work on the front lines. That’s because African American young people respond best to adults who have shared their experiences, Hopson says.
“Had to do something”
Not surprisingly, the program is expensive — roughly $7,000 a year per participant, primarily to pay the roughly 50 employees involved in supervising about 1,000 students in elementary through high school and another 300 who are in college or launching careers.
Most comes from private contributions from foundations, corporations, wealthy individuals and the United Way. About 40 percent comes from government grants and contracts including from Multnomah County, the Portland Children’s Levy, the U.S. Department of Education and, in the past two years, Portland Public Schools.
During the past two school years, the school district used federal grant funds to pay about $3,000 of the program’s $7,500-per-student cost for 100 students. District leaders did not ask SEI to serve students from other racial backgrounds with a similar need for mentoring, in apparent violation of federal civil rights rules prohibiting school districts from using race as a criterion to enter programs.
“What we were looking for was something that was culturally specific for a group of kids … with whom the district was not being very successful,” says Willie Poinsette, who as chief of family and community engagement and partnerships signed off on $570,000 in payments to Self Enhancement. “When you look at the high dropout rate and low achievement” among African Americans in Portland Public Schools, she says, “the district had to do something.”
The school district is paying SEI for help again, but this time with race-blind criteria to participate. This month, the district agreed to pay Self Enhancement $500,000 in federal stimulus money to provide its signature case management and mentoring to every freshman at Jefferson and every student in grades six through eight at Humboldt School.
The predominantly African American schools have been designated as “academic priority zone” schools because of widespread poverty and chronic low achievement.
Jhaizmine Smith, a 2010 Jefferson grad studying nursing at Concordia University, says it’s a “no-brainer” that putting more students in the core program will lead to more of them graduating and going to college.
When fellow students urge her to cut class or take an academic shortcut, the messages SEI coordinators drilled into her since she was little won’t let her, she says. “Self-control is the best control,” the little voice tells her. “Who am I going to disappoint?” And she does the right thing.
“They go above and beyond to make you succeed,” Smith says. “The only thing they could possibly improve about this program is to serve more students and more schools.”