I was invited by a science teacher Kendall Jensen to visit with her students at Roosevelt High School during my travel to assist the Portland, Oregon community group Neighbors for Clean Air. I have visited classrooms often throughout my work at CHEJ. However, this school, its teachers and the students truly inspired me in a way that I left more energized than when I came.
To understand why, you need to understand the environment. The school built in 1921 houses over 680 students. The students come from a low wealth area with 84% of the students receiving free or reduced lunch program, making it Oregon’s poorest high school. A few of the students live in the shelters and are homeless.
Moreover, the school is the most diverse in the state with the student population consisting of 31% Latino, 30% white, 23% African American, 9% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 4% Native American. In a school population where there are so many negative impacts working against students’ ability to succeed, I walked into a room full of students gathered together to take steps to improve themselves and their environment.
Ms. Kendall Jensen a science teacher at the high school has inspired and motivated the students to explore the environmental problems in the community. As I walked into the classroom where we were having lunch and conversation with students about Love Canal and the work that the neighborhood group, Neighbors for Clean Air, was working on the room was full of energy from eager students. No one was getting extra credit; no one was getting any benefit other than the opportunity to learn more about their neighborhood’s air problems.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also share that this was one of the first beautiful spring days in Portland with the temperature in the 70’s, sunny and clear. Yet students motivated by Kendall and their own curiosity came to learn instead of joining their friends for lunch on this beautiful day. Students listened and learned not just about the local toxic air pollution problems but about taking leadership becoming their own advocates and standing up for what they think is right. This High School is in the direct line of toxic air pollution. It is one of Portland’s schools that rank in the top 5% of all US schools with the most dangerous outdoor air quality in the country.
As a mother of four and someone who has spent time with extraordinary teachers like Kendall, it is clear that when students fail it is not because of a failed teacher. Sometime, especially in schools like Roosevelt High School where students face challenges everyday to survive, it the added toxic environment that directly affects their ability to learn and to pass standardized tests. We know with a level of scientific confidence that toxic chemicals in the environment are directly connected to children’s’ ability to concentrate and learn. Children facing daily toxic lifestyles as it is being referred to now – meaning single family households, poverty, drug influences, poor diet and so on – is exasperated by exposures to real toxic chemicals. Clearly the students in that classroom want to learn, want to succeed and want to take control of their futures. They and the school’s teachers need help; they need a healthy environment, with clean air for their students to succeed. Clean air is something that teachers do not have the ability to change on their own. It is the responsibility of the government to give students a chance by both providing the tools and the healthy environment to make success possible. If the students at this school fail it is more likely the fault of the lack of a healthy environment and not the teachers.