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Image: Molly Mendoza

Leadership isn’t just about moving things forward. Sometimes, it requires forcing a bold change of direction. In his 20 years at North Portland’s Open School (formerly Open Meadow), Andrew Mason has done just that. Since he took over as executive director 10 years ago, Mason has shifted the 44-year-old organization’s focus from working with high school dropouts to redefining education for at-risk students. Open School’s progressive program of small-group classes, diverse teaching staff, and bilingual family nights works: the organization boasts a zero-percent achievement gap between white students and students of color, and 100 percent of Open School’s class of 2015 exceeded the state’s new diploma standards. In 2016, the nonprofit’s ambitious new Open School location will open in east Multnomah County in Rockwood, serving a neighborhood with some of the area’s highest crime and poverty rates.

In His Own Words

When I came on, we were a high school only—a lifeboat for the students jumping out of the “big boat,” helping them get across to graduation. For first-generation high school grads, that’s good, but good isn’t good enough. I’m not interested in a different standard for our low-income kids and kids of color.

North Portland is gentrifying, so we look at the Rockwood neighborhood, with the highest crime rates in Gresham, one of the highest poverty rates in the county—what about there? We enrolled the first class last fall, working with partners in East Portland to provide the support to make sure they’ve got housing, food, and clothing so that they’ll show up.

We’re betting in East Portland that there is such a thing as a small-school kid. That kid shows signs of fraying in public school, and the best way to keep them in school is to create a community with them and embrace them all the way through, seventh grade to graduation.

I think our city needs our program, populated by low-income kids, kids of color, where they’re going to college. We really need the example saying, “It’s possible.” I would be a fool to claim victory at this point, but I am not a fool to say that we’ve gotta try.

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