Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Jesuit junior Sunjay Mouli and a team of North Portland students — Gerry, Mikey, Miguel and Alberto — watch a rocket lift off.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Jesuit junior Sunjay Mouli and a team of North Portland students — Gerry, Mikey, Miguel and Alberto — watch a rocket lift off.
A team of Jesuit High School students spends Monday afternoons helping low-income children embrace the thrill of science.

Goggled up and dancing with excitement, four North Portland boys watch as Jesuit juniors Fitsum Dejene and Sunjay Mouli prepare to launch a vinegar and baking soda rocket. The middle school scientists designed and built the vessel, and in the process learned about pressure, inertia and gravity.

"Seeing when it connects in their minds is so fun," says Dejene, who himself plans to pursue science and medicine. "It's good to know you're teaching them something they can use."

Held in a city-owned indoor tennis center in St. Johns, the year-round non-profit venture combines tennis lessons, academics and music as a way to give a boost to at-risk children in the neighborhood. The aim is to create scholar-athletes.  

The program — funded by the United States Tennis Association, Nike Employee Foundation, and members of the greater Portland community — is called Portland After School Tennis and Education — PAST&E. The restaurant Papa Haydn, American Family Insurance, Wells Fargo and Northwest Natural are also sponsors and partners include Portland Parks and Recreation and the University of Portland.

On a recent Monday, one group of children see how a tsunami model affects a small building. Another pod studies the effect of petroleum oil on bird eggs. A third team sees how different road surfaces can affect the speed of a vehicle — in this case a model car.

Ellen Walker, a Jesuit junior, recalls the exciting day children learned that salt water conducts electricity. Current running through a tub caused a buzzer to go off; the youngsters shouted out in awe. Hearing such zeal, Walker explains, proves that a teacher has hit the mark that time around.

PAST&E, founded in 1996 by Ernest Hartzog, former assistant superintendent of Portland Public School District, seeks to further health in mind and body, says Danice Brown, the program's executive director. In addition to racket sports and the seminars led by staff and volunteers, the children get healthy snacks. They begin each afternoon in what's called a peace circle, a gathering that reinforces communal bonds and self-confidence. The after-school hours are well-ordered.

The program is designed to give children the necessary tools to become Brown says.

Many of the children are enrolled at nearby James John School, where 85 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.

Ristom, a James John fourth grader, says the program helps him get high grades and make healthy choices. On top of that, he has become an elite youth tennis player.

Captain of the Jesuit mentors is sophomore Meghana Rao, who spent a summer volunteering with PAST&E before devising the year-round program that she hoped would enhance science education. In addition to loving math and science — biofuels are her current passion — Rao plays tennis for Jesuit. She and doubles partner Ann Martel were runners up in last month's state tournament.

Rao has found that it's important in science that children have their hands involved.
"I hope they're having fun and seeing new things they didn't see," says Rao. "I hope it makes them a little curious."

The Jesuit students won a $5,000 grant from Pepsi to pay for science supplies. With the gear helping, the youngsters will show their projects in a science fair.

"I hope the kids find a way to stay interested in science and have it help them stay on the right tracks in their lives," says Madison Rich, a Jesuit junior. Rich spoke just after helping a team of youngsters design two small buildings that will be tested in a simulated earthquake.

Tara Raizuda, a Jesuit junior, says he has not only learned more about science, but about how to lead and teach.

"If you just talk about heat conductivity, it's boring," Raizuda explains. "But if you talk about ice cream, that's another thing. I want the kids to know that science can really be fun."

Sunjay Mouli, a Jesuit junior, is inspired by the young students' enthusiasm.

"I hope they have a love for science," Mouli says. "I think that will get them pretty far."

"I want them to experience people who take education seriously," says Jillian Robinson, a Jesuit junior. "To make it interesting, we have them give input into what they'll do."

Maria Aguila, on staff with PAST&E, says the high school mentors offer something no one else can — they're proximate role models.

Aguila says: "The kids look at them and say, 'I want to be just like you.'"