Illustration by Zack Soto

"WERE ANY OF YOU worried to start high school?" asked incoming Reynolds High School ninth grader Clarissa Diaz of the audience gathered outside Legacy Emanuel Hospital on Wednesday morning, July 22. The group of assembled dignitaries listening to Diaz speak included Mayor Sam Adams, County Chair Ted Wheeler, and Portland Schools Foundation board member Karen Whitman—and all three raised their hands.

Only 57 percent of Portlanders graduate from high school on time, and both Wheeler and the mayor have made doubling the graduation rate a priority by 2013. Diaz was at Legacy last week along with 30 other Reynolds students on a career site visit as part of Adams and Wheeler's new Summer Youth Corps program, which has provided 500 students with career and college campus visits this summer—aiming to prevent students dropping out by connecting them with a more defined future. Summer Youth Corps was developed based on research showing kids going into ninth grade need to be targeted for special attention, most of all.

"What's really on the line this summer is the future economic vitality of our community," said Wheeler. "Too many kids fall through the cracks."

"Some students' parents forced them to be in the program, but I chose to be here," said Diaz, explaining that the program has introduced her to new friends and teachers, and has helped her feel more confident as an incoming freshman. On top of visits to Reed College, Ecotrust, and the Northwest Film Center, Diaz is also one of 1,000 incoming students taking extra academic classes four days a week this summer through the Portland Schools Foundation's new Ninth Grade Counts program.

"I grew up in this neighborhood, but I didn't see Emanuel Hospital as a place to work until I got involved through a volunteer program at Benson High School," said Monique Allen, a long-time Emanuel nurse, addressing the students. "It's never too late or too early to start expressing your interests in terms of jobs."

Youth Corps volunteer coach Jimmy Brown accompanied the Reynolds students on their tour as they watched a team of nurses resuscitate a plastic patient named Mr. Smith in the hospital's simulation suite. "This is where I had my tonsils out when I was in high school," said Brown, who worked for 25 years in the county's parole and probation department before joining the Portland Water Bureau.

"I started at Jefferson High School 43 years ago," he continued. "And a program a bit like this helped me acclimate to the high school experience, except it was focused on the school itself—not career choices or college visits."

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, with painted "Asian theme" toenails, Brown said his fashion choices showed, "I am totally comfortable with who I am." He said his toenails had prompted several conversations with the kids about peer pressure and choosing one's own identity.

AmeriCorps volunteer Liz Pacholl took one 13-year-old boy on a side trip to visit his older sister who had just given birth in the maternity ward. "We couldn't find her," said Pacholl, returning after an hour. "But we used the walk over there to talk about social skills and learning life lessons."

Both Brown and Pacholl think Youth Corps is working, but expressed concerns about follow-up.

"What could make this program really successful is to continue connecting with these kids throughout their high school experience," said Brown.

Mayor Adams' education strategies youth coordinator, Reese Lord, says the plan for Youth Corps is to continue assisting students through their high school experience, although the plans are yet to be formalized or released on the program's website. Lord says the success of the program will first be measured in November, when the achievement of kids who went through it will be compared with others, citywide, who missed out.

In Diaz's case, at least, the initiatives seem to be working. She lives with an aunt after seeing her father deported to Tijuana five years ago, she said, and has never met her mother. But despite those setbacks, her ambition is clear.

"I want to go to Harvard and be an immigration lawyer," she told the Mercury at the conclusion of the tour. "I want to do something big."