BY BRIAN LIBBY
Nelson Mandela once wrote that education is the "most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Visiting the newly remodeled and expanded Franklin High School a few days ago, I certainly felt inspired to believe—even as events in Charlottesville and its aftermath took a turn towards the repugnant and toward an even more divided nation. Maybe schools are the most important institutions we have right now.
Walking the new Franklin's halls, where new and old architecture have been woven together in a design by Dull Olson Weekes, IBI Group Architects and SERA Architects, felt encouraging and inspiring.
In November 2012, Portland voters approved an eight-year, $482 million school building improvement bond by a two-thirds majority. Based on a citizen-developed and prioritized plan, the bond will fully modernize three high schools, including Franklin (as well as Roosevelt and Grant), and replace one K-8 school. It will also replace roofs, and improve seismic safety, access, and grade 6th-8th science classrooms at up to 63 other schools. Franklin is the latest result.
The architects here had a head start because Franklin, designed in a distinctive Colonial Revival style and completed in 1915, is perhaps Portland's most architecturally beautiful high school. The original structure is comprised of two story brick-faced and concrete buildings featuring a balanced and largely symmetrical fenestration, embellished porticos and entryways, staggered quoins on building corners, modillion cornices, jack arches with keystones over all windows, elaborate terra cotta panels, elegantly curving Venetian windows, and a centrally-placed, highly detailed clock tower with glazed cupola.
But I also was impressed with the unions of old and new architecture. Inside the main entrance, for example, a low-ceilinged entry was transformed in order to create a light-filled double-height space with a pair of staircases wide enough for students to stop and talk. Moving into the renovated old building, many of the offices and classrooms are walled with glass, creating transparency and extending that natural light. I loved seeing how the old auditorium had been converted to a library, with mezzanines surrounding another double-height, light-filled space. And in the northwest corner of the campus is an entirely new building that includes a gymnasium and culinary arts facilities.
As much as I enjoyed the architecture itself, what perhaps impressed me the most was all the facilities provided for different kinds of career training. The culinary arts facilities seemed like a large commercial restaurant kitchen. The science labs seemed more like university laboratories than what I knew in my 1980s McMinnville high school. In addition to traditional wood and metal shops, there are even so-called "maker" spaces, where students can pursue their ideas about design. The performing arts area on the southeast corner of the property included an auditorium that could not only serve Franklin students but the entire community.
Seeing high schools able to transition into not just college-prepatory institutions but in some ways vocational schools seems like a way to address the ever-widening gap in our society between haves and have-nots: between the increasingly rich and the poor, between those able to pursue a college education and a job in the knowledge-based economy and those who find vocational work of other kinds.
Although the overwhelming majority of this project is being bankrolled by us, Portland's taxpayers, there was also a private-sector component. The Franklin Alumni Association raised money so the new building on the northwest edge of the campus could be clad in brick to match the rest of the school. Nike also provided funds to pay for the new track and athletic field.
In reality the opening of a renovated and expanded Franklin has nothing to do with the white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville or the defense and justification of those swastika-stamped marchers by our president and a the nation's right-leaning citizenry. Yet schools are symbols as much as they are brick, mortar, steel and glass. In that way, it's precisely Franklin's union of old brick and mortar with new steel and glass that gives me hope. Public schools are vital as a glue of American society. The more the rich send their kids to separate private schools, and the more the poor must self-segregate themselves into crumbling, sub-standard public schools, the more the nation becomes severed. The more each side vilifies the other, either in the misguided rage of right-wing protesters against civil rights and equality, or in the potential for left-leaning protesters to look down on their opponents without an honest dialogue, the more we will see horrific conflicts like the one that led to Heather Heyer's murder and an ensuing lack of sympathy from the right, who have actually continued to vilify Heyer even in her martyrdom.
This is not the end of the Portland Public Schools modernization effort. Grant, Lincoln, Benson and Madison High Schools are being modernized too, as well as middle schools and elementary schools. It doesn't come cheap. No one likes to pay more taxes. But Mandela is right: we need to double down on education. We must keep assuring our public schools are state-of-the-art technologically while ridding them of lead, radon, asbestos while minimizing the risk fire and seismic collapse. We must make them full of light and encouraging of students to come together and linger. We must let teachers teach, and we must also find ways to teach each other: about literature and biology, history and psychology, chemistry and mathematics, but also about the arts and humanities, as well as how to approach being a citizen with empathy and openness to dialogue.
At the same time, I'd like to see schools like Franklin or any other do more. Why not activate these buildings more when school is out? I think these modernized schools play a role as community centers, where members of the neighborhood or other city residents can find continuing education or entertainment and cultural programming, or that can serve as emergency shelters during a natural disaster. Why not work with a local theater company to stage productions in the Franklin auditorium? Why not invite nonprofits to hold meetings and open houses during the evenings in the empty classrooms? It's precisely because the Franklin modernization and the broader PPS modernization is so welcome that one can't help but wonder if these schools could become cultural and community crossroads even more than they already are.