By Arden Butterfield
for the Hollywood Star News
The year was 1969, and Adams High School was a brand-new school just south of Fernhill Park in Northeast Portland. The building was unlike any other school in Portland. Built out of giant concrete blocks, it had outdoor covered pathways connecting different parts of the building. The centerpiece of the design was a tree in a central courtyard, which reached up to the glass ceiling above the second floor of the school. “That was a state-of-the-art building,” Harold Johnson, who taught at Adams, remembers. “They were still nailing a little bit when the school started.”
On each of the four sides of the courtyard was one of the houses – later called schools-within-a-school.
Within the houses, students spent half their day in General Education – an interdisciplinary class with topics such as Man and His Environment. The idea came from a group of Harvard graduate students who, dissatisfied with traditional high schools, traveled around the country to find a place to start a school of their own.
Dave Damcke, a teacher at the Hampshire school-within-a-school, taught through simulations, such as a giant game of monopoly which illustrated the Great Depression. This curriculum helped Deb Bellerue, who graduated from Adams in 1971, become “excited about learning,” after school had previously bored her. At Adams, she says, “I cared about, and was interested in, what I was researching.”
Both inside and outside the classroom, Adams students focused on hands-on learning. Some students planted an organic garden in the school’s front lawn. One group repaired, wired, and plumbed a run-down house in North Portland. For three straight semesters, the Adams school newspaper won the top award of the National Scholastic Press Association.
Many teachers appreciated the environment at Adams as well.
“When I worked at the Quincy school-within-a-school – one of the houses at Adams – we had a meeting with all the teachers, including me as a secretary,” Jean Robinson remembers.
These weren’t large-group staff meetings where the principal lectured to the teachers, but conversations between teachers in a school-within-a-school, where everyone was listened to with equal weight.
“I wasn’t considered a lower-class citizen because I was a secretary,” said Robinson.
This gave Robinson a “tremendous amount of confidence” in what she had to say, as well as a deeper connection with the other teachers.
Adams closed in 1981, as high school population declined across Portland. Many students and faculty were relocated to Jefferson High School, where they worked to keep the best parts of Adams in practice.
Now, almost 50 years after Adams first opened its doors, many Adams teachers have still managed to stay in touch.
“With all these meetings in the schools within the schools, we really got to know each other as staff members,” Robinson remembers. “I’ve still remained friends with the people I worked with at Adams. It was the warmest staff, and the most embracing.”
Once a month, Robinson, Damcke, and two other Adams teachers get together to play dominoes. Mary Bothwell and Robinson go to the same church.
At Adams, “There was a closeness between students and faculty,” Bothwell remembers. “I don’t see it anywhere else.” She pauses for a moment. “At Jefferson it may still be that way.”