Contributing to Our Community: An Enduring Theme

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By Lark Palma, Head of School

Lark Palma, right, with Beginning School head Pam McComas

Some form or another of Catlin Gabel School has been part of the Portland community for 149 years. The current school, which merged the Catlin-Hillside School and Gabel Country Day School, has been here on this beautiful Honey Hollow campus for 50 years this year. Happy 50th anniversary, Catlin Gabel School!

That sort of longevity has been reflected in the Portland community in an abiding and subtle way, with most of it deriving from the philosophical pillars of the school—and in turn the many alumni of Catlin Gabel and its predecessor schools who have made their lives in the Portland area. Ruth Catlin and Priscilla Gabel believed that the primary purpose of education was training for civic life and civic engagement. We are fortunate to live in Portland, a city that for the most part values citizen involvement, congruent with the way we encourage our students to participate in public life.

The well-being of a democratic society requires citizens capable of making sound judgments about matters that make up our common life—our government, the education of our children, the books we read, and the culture in which we live. These judgments help shape our society and create its ethos. At Catlin Gabel, we know our students will be prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, both here and beyond the school.

State representative Ben Cannon ’88 visits with students after speaking at a January assembly

The last decade has seen extraordinary leadership in this community by some of our alumni, a few notable examples being Gil Kelley ’71, director of urban planning for the city of Portland; David Bragdon ’77, president of Metro; Oregon state representative Ben Cannon ’88; and arts patrons Jordan Schnitzer ’69 and Sarah Miller-Miegs ’79. A number of graduates in the last decade are working in nonprofit organizations in the city and around the world, including Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the Peace Corps, and Mercy Corps. Some have even started their own organizations and supported them with their salaries from other jobs.

Examples of our school’s engagement outside our campus boundaries go back as far as 1923. The late Deborah Anne Smith Snyder ’27 recalled that during that year Miss Catlin brought in news of a Japanese earthquake and asked her students what they could do to help. Even back then Miss Catlin was urging her students to become responsible citizens of the community and the world. Our students are always ready to pitch in to help others: for example, the 1988 earthquake in Mexico City, brought close to us by our Olinca exchange, spurred a massive relief effort, and in 2004 students worked tirelessly to raise money and give aid to victims of the Asia tsunami.

The Rummage Sale, the school’s most visible outreach to the public, is 63 years old. This inspired idea that began in the 1940s has grown to a four-day event where thousands of people from the Portland area and beyond shop for affordable goods, with proceeds going to financial aid. This effort is made possible every year by thousands of volunteer hours contributed by students, teachers, parents, faculty-staff, and friends, all committed to making sure we have tuition assistance available to students who might benefit. Many students get their first taste of their broader communities when they take part in community service projects. Upper School students work toward required hours of service, and Middle Schoolers work once a month off campus in various agencies and schools. The dogged environmental restoration work of our students over many years on the Elana Gold ’93 Memorial Environmental Restoration Project in the Mt. Hood National Forest has brought stunning results, gradually bringing degraded habitats back to vibrant life. Even in Beginning School, students begin to develop a disposition to be of service to others, making snacks and artworks for homeless people and shut-in patients, and getting visits in return. Both the Cascade Aids Project and the Oregon Food Bank have recently honored our students for their contribution of volunteer time, and many other agencies—and the people they serve—directly benefit from their abundant energy and limitless reservoirs of caring and good will. Madison Kaplan ’04 reflects the views of many of her fellow alumni when she said of her experiences reaching out, “When we grow up after high school we are going to be away from sheltered Catlin Gabel. It is important for us to see life outside Catlin Gabel. We can be more prepared and open-minded when we are living in a world of so many possibilities. Service learning is also a good way to give back to the community. Hopefully, giving back will become second nature to everyone.”

Many students and members of the faculty and staff also work to enhance the educational experience for other teachers and students, as one of their forms of public service. Faculty and staff members serve on independent school boards to help keep the “independent” in independent school. Teachers have contributed to national curriculum in mathematics and social studies. The school has been a teacher of teachers by offering science, technology, and mathematics workshops in the summer and maintaining a partnership with Portland State University. Since 1991, the Lower School has partnered with Lewis & Clark College in bringing in students from the masters teaching program for a one-year internship into the classroom for every grade. The Beginning School, Middle School, and Upper School have invited students from Pacific University, Lewis & Clark College, and Portland State, among others, to learn side by side with our master teachers. Several teachers and staffers are adding to the national voice of education through educational journals, blogs, and other forms of publishing and communication. Twelve of our teachers and staff members are currently engaged as teachers of teachers in educational settings around the city. Educators from the Northwest, other parts of the United States, and all over the world come to our campus to see how we teach school here at Catlin Gabel.

Catlin Gabel has always defined itself as an agent of positive change, with a focus on the development of the city of Portland, the preservation of our cherished 54 acres, and the shaping of educational values. It is no accident that improvements in public education cohere around principles that Catlin Gabel School has incorporated since its inception: maintaining a small class size, creating environments where children are known, and meeting the needs of diverse learners. These values have become part of the Chalkboard Project, the Gates Foundation, and other projects that improve the learning environment in all kinds of schools.

This Caller is a celebration of our past 50 years and a harbinger of the next. As you read our histories, take the quiz, read the stories of alumni and the decade-by-decade timeline of what our school has accomplished over many years, I urge you to think about Catlin Gabel’s future, the 21st-century education that we provide, and the continuing civic engagement of anyone who is touched by the values of this institution.

Lark Palma and parent Katrina Pointer, Rummage cashiers