Northeast Portland

Local charter school is building our future one student at a time

Local charter school is building our future one student at a time
A mural inside the school. (Photo credit: Photo by Bill Roberson, KATU.com)

PORTLAND, Ore. - The economy is in a slump, jobs are hard to come by and unemployment is high - those are a given these days.

So how can we prepare our youth for an uncertain future?

That's the challenge that the folks at Portland's Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School (LEP) are meeting head on by teaching students how to create a career path for themselves that doesn't necessarily involve handing out a resume or filling out an application.

You see, students at LEP are encouraged to look deep inside themselves, figure out what makes them happy and then create a business model based on their ideas. And these aren't just classroom projects that will never make it into the real world - some students are actually running their own businesses.

Student Tavio Perez, for example, has developed his own clothing line and another student, Hausaun Moore, has a music studio called Young Hot Productions.

Other students who are in the planning stages presented their business plans last week to their peers, teachers and parents. We stopped by to listen in and see what some of the teens have been working on.

Student Patrice Shepstone showed her class how she wants to create a business selling fuzzy, reversible hats that are a throwback to the 80s. And she even has a cool brand name picked out - 'Thug Monsta.'

Another student, 15-year-old Sachs Griffith, came up with a business called Say Ma Vie where he hopes to create personalized history books that can tell a family's story to future generations.

"I think it really empowers the kids," his mother, Karine Griffith, said. "What kid at this age could put a whole business together? Even adults struggle with that and I think if you learn it at an early age, it just opens doors."

And the business plans the students prepare are rock solid - they have analyzed their target market, figured out what their competition will be, determined the costs associated with their business (including the startup investment) and figured out how much profit they can expect to see. All that's left is to put the plan in motion, should the student decide to fulfill their dream.

For 18-year-old Will Brauckmiller, a recent LEP graduate who is now a freshman at Warner Pacific College, he was always interested in performing at events, like dances. So he came up with a business model based on LED lights attached to gloves and strings that could be used to create 'light tracers' with body movement.

His idea actually caught the attention of an investor who wrote the teen a check to get it off the ground. But Brauckmiller had bigger plans for his future and decided not to cash in on the investment. Instead, he enrolled in college and put his business plans on hold so he could get a higher education.

It's the type of wisdom that is fostered at LEP, where students are taught not only how to create working business plans, give professional presentations and figure out the economics involved in starting a venture, but also the value of planning their career path.

"One of the things they tell us is that now, compared to back then, the masters is what equals the college degree," Brauckmiller, who already plans on getting an MBA after he earns his undergraduate degree, said.

The Culture at LEP

The students we talked to at LEP told us they actually get excited about going to class, where they are encouraged to join the conversation and get involved in their own learning.

"There are plenty of interesting conversations and topics in public school but the way the conversations were formatted, the structure and the way they were being handled made me want to tune out," said Brauckmiller. "And you could because it really didn't matter. But here it was just different. You could tell right from the get go."

For 17-year-old Katelynn Sundin, who came from a Catholic school background where she said she was mostly told to keep quiet, it was somewhat of a culture shock - but in a good way.

"My first day, I was engaged in more classroom conversations than I think I ever had from the time I was in kindergarten," she said. "I was ready to jump into it. There were things that I was passionate about, things that were arguable, things that were life relatable."

Sundin's experience is an example of how a teenager's life can completely change at LEP.

"I think if I wouldn't have come here I would have lost all my personality that I have to this day," she said. "I wouldn't be a presenter, I wouldn't be going out and getting involved in the community, I wouldn't be known by my entire school and I wouldn't have teachers that were there for me."

The opportunity to see teenagers get excited about their studies and make huge strides in their learning is what makes the job fulfilling for LEP's teachers, who are carefully selected by the school's administrators.

"It's liberating as a teacher because we get to see the students actualize their dreams and manifest them later on," said Science teacher Joe Ferguson.

A smaller school like LEP also allows teachers to spend more time with their students, something that's becoming increasingly important as class sizes grow.

"Traditional schools have thousands of students and it's really hard to develop relationships with them and get to know them because you deal with so many," said Ferguson. "Here, you get to know the students really quickly and it's really nice."

And Ferguson said it's schools like LEP - where students are taught to be innovative and creative problem solvers - that will lead us into what lies ahead.

"We've got to really think about how we are going to create the young minds that are going to be able to survive a drastically changing reality," he said.

It's a concept that's not lost on Brauckmiller.

"I think LEP instills a lot of mindsets in the way that you should maybe act as a citizen and how you should act ethically," he said. "Those things are just so matched up with what I feel is coming with the new world - the new age of ethics and business and the new age of green and community."

LEP's Teachers are More than Educators

Teachers are the backbone of LEP and the students value each and every one of the adults at the school who provide them with support and guidance.

"You know that teacher you had in high school that you really like? It's like having them in every single one of your classes," said Brauckmiller.

"At my old school I couldn't even walk in and ask my teacher a question between periods without them telling me to go away because they were busy," said Sundin. "(It's great) being able to just walk in and be like 'I need your help' and have them stay here until 7 o'clock at night. Having them willing to put in that kind of effort for you is really amazing."

"If the teachers got paid minimum wage for those extra hours they put in with students, they'd be making six figures," Brauckmiller said.

Sundin said that being able to develop strong relationships with her teachers was something she never thought could actually happen. She said just knowing they care about her and her life means a lot.

"On Monday they want to hear all about your weekend," she said as an example. "They want to know everything that's going on and they keep updated in your life. But at the same time if you say 'I don't want to talk about it,' they're very willing to say 'that's OK.'

"Having that level of friendship makes you not want to disappoint them," she added. "If you come in and say you didn't do your homework and they give you that look, you're ashamed. You actually care that you didn't do it."

How it all Began

LEP is a fairly new non-profit charter school that was founded in 2006.

The idea for the school started with co-founder Adam Reid, who said his own experience in high school was less than fulfilling.

"I looked at high school as a jail sentence," he said. "I was just waiting for the time to run out so I could be free."

Although he wasn't big on school, Reid did go to college and soon learned what it was really like to be involved in classes and feel as if you are a part of something. And it was then that he decided he could make a difference for local high school students.

"I saw them going through the same process I did," he said. "They were bored, they weren't engaged, they weren't seeing the relevance and they weren't interested. And I just thought that things could be different."

Reid's path to LEP was a long one but he wanted to make sure he was ready. He ended up doing a lot of research to figure out how to create his dream school and went to Stanford University to get his master's degree. It was in California that Reid met two others who were interested in the idea and ultimately the three of them created LEP.

Today, Reid is actively involved at the school and can be found in the halls on any given school day. The students know him well and they always have a smile for him.

For Reid, what inspires him is seeing his students realize that they can actually do something they never thought they could.

"It's great to see the a-ha moments where they realize 'wow, I really can create a business with my family that's about a unique idea or I can improve the community.' And they can actually make it happen," he said.

As far as the future of LEP, Reid said they will work on strengthening their core components of leadership and entrepreneurship and continue to reach out to the business community to develop real-world experience for their students. LEP's ultimate goal is for their students to easily transition into their career and adult life right out of high school.

"Once they graduate from here it's not just 'OK, you graduated, good luck on your own.' Instead, you almost seamlessly transition into your adult life with a huge support network already in place," said Reid.

"Everybody on our staff is really, extremely dedicated to youth," Reid added. "And everyone is passionate about serving youth."