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Cultivating Young Minds

May 08, 2014

Around 11:00 a.m., fourth period at Parkrose High School, Jessica Polledri carries a Nalgene, a pink course schedule, and a page-long list of seniors who have procrastinated their senior projects until the month before graduation. The earliest deadline for the projects, brief explorations of career options, passed in October. Like a city reporter, Polledri visits classes and mills around the library, searching for a name. The librarian points, “She’s the one in the white shirt on the couch.”

Polledri approaches a group of four girls, reminding the student in the middle of her incomplete project. “Do you want me to help you start that?” she asks.

“Is it bad if I don’t?” the girl says.

Polledri asks the student to finish the project on her own, then walks away, scanning the list of names again. Her search will take several days at least. She looks for classes on break from a lecture or students with a free period. She stays upbeat by fiddling with a Rubick’s Cube in the counseling office and enjoying the blue skies on the way to find her next student, in the art building. “Senioritis is real,” she jokes.

Polledri enrolled in the Lewis & Clark Master of Education in School Counseling program in fall 2013, and in January began an internship at Parkrose for one day each week. She loves working with students, a passion she cultivated long before she began cruising the halls of Parkrose, digging in the dirt.

After earning a dual degree in English and linguistics from the University of Mary Washington in 2007, Polledri worked in Hawaii on a citrus and lettuce farm. She moved to Portland to join Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that builds gardens in urban backyards and schools. Growing Gardens sustains three-year partnerships with high-risk elementary schools on Portland’s east side. Polledri had funding as a FoodCorps service member to help the organization maintain school gardens and teach after-school garden classes to students. Polledri met thousands of students, many from poor neighborhoods, who together heard some 30 languages at home. They planted garlic in the fall; fava beans in winter; and tomato, pepper and eggplant in summer. Polledri sang, ran in circles, and praised her K-5 students for naming all six parts of the plant, or learning how seeds mature.

Though she is no longer working with Growing Gardens, Polledri hasn’t given up her passion for engaging kids in learning about food and wellbeing. With the Lent K-8 School in Southeast Portland, Polledri is doing an extracurricular project designing gardening lessons aligned with state math, science, and language arts standards for students in grades three through five.

“Healthy eating and self-reliance is at the basis of emotional wellness,” she said. “And when you’re doing well emotionally, you’re much more likely to do well academically.” Her early work in garden education, which emphasizes the connection between wellbeing and life success, motivated Polledri to become a school counselor. “My work with children as a garden educator,” Polledri said, “made me realize how many ways there are for kids to learn and feel successful.”

In the art building back at Parkrose, Polledri pulls a student out of health class who is also behind on his senior project. They walk to the computer lab. Since Polledri last saw him, he’s had a rough time, or at least wants her to think he has. He nicked a TriMet bus and crashed his car into a lightpost. He got stitches after getting head butted, though he reassures Polledri he wasn’t fighting. Polledri is unflappable and supportive. She tells him she knows how weird stitches can feel. He wants to become an anesthesiologist, but he’ll take it a day at a time. She says that’s wise.

In the computer lab, he admits to forgetting his password, and Polledri helps him create a new one. Behind them, girls in Hollister sweatshirts are texting and chattering about a new boyfriend. Polledri will check back soon. “You’re going to be okay,” she says, “please do it.”

“He’s a good kid,” Polledri says. With her boundless empathy and optimism, that praise could go for almost any of the students she encounters, in counseling or back at Growing Gardens. “Pretty much every kid I meet is interesting,” she said. “They all bring totally different viewpoints to eating, to being a person.”

Learn more about the School Counseling program.

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