The campus of Leadership & Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School (or LEP, as it's better known) is barely that—an unassuming building on East Burnside, this nondescript facility overflows with students pouring in and out of classrooms, gossiping in the halls, and being lectured to take their earbuds out before addressing the faculty. It's like high school, but without the school. Nonetheless, the office-like facility feels deliberate. While most high schools represent a vast rite of teenage passage—from the structure of the classrooms to the lawlessness of whatever goes on under the bleachers—LEP is a school with a firm focus on catching those who fall between the cracks of a traditional high school and placing them in colleges, internships, and the working world.
That focus is now jeopardized by a Portland Public School Board vote that could strip the three-year-old school of funding and shutter its bustling campus for good. With an enrollment of around 250 students, LEP focuses primarily on entrepreneur opportunities and a hands-on education for its students, but has struggled financially. Barring an appeal to the board, the school could close next month.
"The end date is June 8," says Principal Lorna Fast Buffalo Horse. "We hope to have some indication before that, because there's a lot of planning that has to happen for next year. There's also a lot of planning if we don't get our appeal that we'll have to do to transition the kids." It's a dire situation, especially considering the at-risk nature and low-income status of many LEP students—over 60 percent of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Enter Steve Berlin. Known for a variety of musical endeavors—a longtime member of Los Lobos, and a noted session player (he played on Paul Simon's Graceland and even produced Faith No More's major label debut)—Berlin also has a far more important role: father to a LEP student. "Our experience has been nothing short of phenomenal, which I am quite sure would be the response of every parent at the school," Berlin says. "This is a public school available to every high schooler in Portland that is completely invested in turning out self-motivated, creative-thinking leaders."
Berlin's involvement has stretched beyond singing the praises of the initiation. He's a driving force behind the upcoming LEP Rocks! benefit concert. "We had to come up with a lot of fundraising ideas quickly when the initial charter reauthorization vote at the Portland Public School Board went against us," Berlin explains. "I reached out to virtually every Portland musician I knew, who in turn reached out to the musicians they knew, and that's how we got this stellar lineup."
While some benefits are anchored by a single well-meaning name, the LEP fundraiser is teeming with a confounding number of big-name artists: the Minus 5 (an acoustic set that will feature Peter Buck of R.E.M.), Stephen Malkmus, Alec Ounsworth (of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), Rebecca Gates (of the Spinanes), Storm Large, and plenty more.
This parade of marquee names is far more than a quaint gesture to raise cash for the desperate LEP. It's also about generating understanding at a time when all schools—not just struggling charter institutions like LEP—are the victims of budget shortfalls. Speaking more as a father than a musician, Berlin explains it best: "None of the parents involved in the battle to keep LEP open would be fighting this hard if we didn't think the school was such an extraordinary place."