Cofounders of Pacific Crest Community School
Laughter and music capture your attention when you step inside Pacific Crest Community School. In the hallway, good-natured teens tease a teacher, who chuckles and cheerfully ribs them back. In the community room, students strum guitars, play CDs, tell jokes, and challenge each other at chess. In a history classroom, students are playing with a deck of instructional cards featuring the faces and biographies of 52 notable people from around the world.
“Our students are energetic, engaged, honest, and willing to hear constructive criticism,” says Becky Lukens M.A.T. ’90, Ed.S. ’10, a Pacific Crest cofounder. And they’re hopeful. “As educators, it’s essential that we instill hope for the future. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Pacific Crest, located in northeast Portland, is a fully accredited independent school for grades 7 through 12. It was founded in 1993 by Lukens, Jenny Osborne M.A.T. ’94, and three other teachers.
While Lukens says she wanted to be a teacher since she was in fifth grade, Osborne approached teaching through a side door. She started as a crisis intervention counselor at Harry’s Mother, which serves runaway youths in Portland. “I liked working with kids, but not as a counselor,” she says.
The two women met in 1991, when Osborne was student teaching in Lukens’ classroom in the West Linn School District. They soon began comparing notes about their experiences in the classroom. “On a good day, Becky and I might have engaged 20 out of 30 kids in a classroom,” says Osborne. “We kept wondering why the other 10—bright kids with tons of potential—were slipping through the cracks.”
Lukens and Osborne began meeting at lunch and after work to brainstorm possible systemic changes to empower struggling students and to make teaching and learning more fun. West Linn gave them the go-ahead to conduct research and present a proposal for a model alternative school to be opened in the district.
“We visited a variety of schools: traditional, alternative, Montessori, and Waldorf,” says Lukens. As it turned out, West Linn turned down their alternative school proposal. Too inspired to go back to teaching as usual, they took a calculated risk and opened Pacific Crest Community School in a building rented from a church in southeast Portland.
Today, Pacific Crest has around 75 students and 12 faculty members, with class sizes limited to 10 to 15 students. Students who thrive at Pacific Crest welcome the small community environment and the atmosphere of acceptance.
There’s no need for them to fit into stereotypical peer groups, says Osborne. They’re curious and interested in experimenting.
Pacific Crest students take a variety of mixed-age classes in the arts, foreign languages, social sciences, language arts, mathematics, and natural sciences. They are responsible for designing their own curriculum with the help of a faculty advisor. Some students even propose new classes, such as a recent offering in world history that was organized around studying mummies. “I learned as much as they did,” says Lukens. “We experimented by mummifying a chicken.”
Service learning is an integral part of the school’s philosophy. “We make service a huge component of our curriculum,” says Osborne.“ Students understand that they operate in a larger world in which they are expected to participate.”
Another hallmark of Pacific Crest is its commitment to democratic school governance. Every week, the entire school meets to celebrate successes, discuss concerns, and suggest new ideas.
At Pacific Crest, students don’t receive standard A through F grades, says Osborne.
Instead, teachers write narrative evaluations every 10 weeks, providing substantive feedback of each student’s work and guidance for improvement. Students create their own portfolios, including highlights of the work they’re most proud of. Each 12th-grader is required to design and execute a comprehensive senior project.
“Over time, we’ve developed a track record and found college admissions offices open to this type of all-encompassing assessment,” says Osborne.
Lukens and Osborne both earned M.A.T.s from Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling.
In December, Lewis & Clark awarded Lukens her Ed.S. in Advanced Leadership. Both credit the graduate school with helping them design their school’s curriculum. Also they enthusiastically welcome Lewis & Clark student teachers.
Currently, two-thirds of Pacific Crest’s English department hails from Lewis & Clark: Jeffrey Struck M.A.T. ’00 and Jordia Blumenstein M.A.T. ’04.
“The grad school’s influence is embedded in the walls here,” says Lukens. “We focus on students as individuals. Our relationship with them is the foundation of our educational adventure. We’re doing joyous work.”
—by Pattie Pace