LAST SEPTEMBER, Rev. James Martin—pastor of North Portland's Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, one of the city's oldest African American churches—attended a Portland School Board committee meeting to pitch his latest project: He wanted to start a small public charter high school, the Academy of Character and Ethics (ACE), to reach out to minority and low-income students. ACE has grant funding from the Gates Foundation, and the support of Portland Community College.
In November, ACE's charter school application was unanimously denied by the school board because of concerns over financing and curriculum. But last week, parents with the school district watchdog group Neighborhood Schools Alliance (NSA) were shocked to learn that ACE could open this fall on the Jefferson High School campus as an alternative school, one of several small schools opening at Jefferson as part of a district effort to restructure the school.
"We learned that Rev. Martin is on the [Jefferson High School] Implementation Team, and ACE is slipped back in," says NSA's Anne Trudeau. Parents in NSA are upset that ACE resurfaced so suddenly—ACE came up at a March 1 school board meeting, while the board was approving the other four small schools developed during the lengthy public process to restructure Jefferson.
"There was no public knowledge, no public process, and no community input into this controversial deal," says Nancy Smith, a parent with years of involvement at Jefferson, including a role on the school's design team. "Mt. Olivet Baptist congregation members were informed some time ago that [ACE] had been approved, yet Portland Public Schools withheld this information from the Jefferson design team and community."
The parents are also concerned that Mt. Olivet and Rev. Martin are involved with the public school. "It's a church. And it's a homophobic church," says NSA's Trudeau.
Indeed, Mt. Olivet was one of the biggest donors to the Defense of Marriage Coalition's Measure 36 campaign, throwing $15,000 toward defeating marriage equality. Martin signed a "Yes on 36" statement with other area pastors. At the September school board committee meeting, school board member Dan Ryan asked if the church-backed public school would be welcoming to children of gay and lesbian parents: Martin insisted that "what [Mt. Olivet does] on Sunday mornings would be different than what they would do at the school," according to meeting minutes.
Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) Executive Director Roey Thorpe is concerned about Mt. Olivet's involvement with ACE. "While the organization seems to have presented this school project to the board as a non-church activity, they clearly describe it as a church activity," she says. "Obviously there's a concern there, they see it as one of their ministries." Thorpe expects BRO will get involved with NSA on the issue.
Other issues about the school's relationship to the church surfaced during ACE's bid to become a charter school: Before landing at Jefferson, ACE originally planned to hold classes in a few spare rooms at Mt. Olivet for the first two years ("There were religious icons in the hallway that would need to be removed," minutes from one school board committee meeting noted). Moreover, Mt. Olivet has listed ACE as one of the church's missionary projects on its website. (Rev. Martin did not return the Mercury's call.)
As an alternative public school, ACE "is not going to be affiliated with the church," says district spokesperson Brenda Gustafson. "This is a college prep curriculm. The curriculum is not affiliated with the church."
Moreover, Gustafson explained that new alternative schools don't go through the board until the school's contract is ready. "[The board] votes on it in their business agenda. This is not unusual." Currently, ACE has a letter of intention with the school district, and the district is seeking a community-based organization—not the church—to run the school.
But NSA is undeterred: "Until Mt. Olivet is out of public schools, we're going to speak out," says Trudeau.