Transition in the AASK Program

by Abe Asher

In January, at the semester break, Myra Clark will leave OES after seventeen years. The AASK program, which she has led since its inception in 1999, will be transferred into new hands: Spanish teacher Maria McIvor will oversee the educational side of AASK and ASAC, while Gisela Walitzki will oversee the administrative side.

This is new territory for AASK. The transition was put into motion late last year, when Myra decided to step away.

Why’d she decide to leave? “I’m a working artist, and it’s a lot like working two different jobs.” Myra will going to the New York Studio School in June for an intensive program in painting, as well as being involved in Gallery 114 in the Pearl District and putting together a show in March.

“You don’t want to leave too early, and you don’t want to leave too late. This feels just right. I just needed to know there was someone to take over the program. It’s so amazing to be a part of a transition like this,” she said.

Reflecting back on the origins of AASK, Myra said, “We started our first tutoring sessions in 1999 [with fifth grade students at Vose], and the five or seven students we had at the time told me that they had to come back. Period. So we started our first middle school program the following summer.”

From there, the reach of AASK grew immensely. “We were just going through the list of kids who went through AASK and graduated from high school — right now this list has over 800 names on it — and it reads like a storybook,” Myra said.

“You know how important you are to the family. To be writing college and scholarship recommendations for these students who have done so much, and contributed to my life as much as anything I’ve done for them, is amazing.”

AASK now serves over 150 middle school students in the summer, when the staff numbers around 45 people from ages sixteen on up. The various elements of the program reach at least half of Whitford’s ESL population.

Nobility is an overused, but underrated word — and it really does describe this program. Spawned by the 1997 OES Board’s insistence that the school address where it could be active and helpful in the community, AASK has always had the support its needed to make an impact. Now, Myra is looking forward to the next chapter.

“Maria brings that Maria energy — she’s a consummate teacher. She has great relationships with the kids, and really understands the kids at Whitford because of her background,” Myra says.

Maria’s background lay the foundation for her interest in working with underprivileged or underachieving kids, starting just after college in the small Ecuadorian village of Salasaca. There working with, and on a stipend from, an organization called World Teach, Maria combated the shortage of, and lack of access to, education.

“If they were in school past fifth grade, they were lucky. Buying uniforms was often a prohibitive expense. So I petitioned my family, and they happily sent me a little bit of money or supplies to tutor these kids and help them with math or literacy. That sealed my commitment to this area. I’ve always loved that type of creative, outside-the-classroom type of work,” Maria said.

Maria doesn’t have any previous experience with AASK, but, with assistance from Myra, she has worked in tutoring at Vose for almost a decade. “My class, HCC, has had an element which I started eight years ago with Katy van der Wiel where the whole class goes each week to classrooms and tutors. It’s been delightful,” Maria said.

That experience with Vose will be of major help in the coming year. “I’ve had experience with with how to be in relationship with a different school — in this case, a public school,” she said.

Taking over AASK means Maria has had to leave her chairmanship of the Discipline Committee, and cut back on teaching courses. She told me, “Yes, I love teaching AP Spanish. I love the competition and the intensity and the intellectual challenge that my students always meet and face — but, the point of all of it is to go out in the world and connect with people of other cultures.”

“This seems like an important outgrowth of that type of philosophy. Speaking the other language, for my own students, is an incredibly important way to show interest, care, concern, and humility to, perhaps, an underserved group. “

For now, Maria isn’t planning major changes to AASK — an organization which has frequently been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency.

“To be honest, I’m in a learning mode — which is probably the most appropriate place for me to be,” Maria said. “The focus for me right now is to respectfully carry the baton and not mess up what Myra has done. Changing things will happen eventually, but for now, I need to make sure I’m honoring the goals and vision of the program.”

Still, there are already small shifts taking place. For instance, in place of the normal three-hour training session in an OES classroom on a Friday night or Saturday morning before the start of each trimester of tutoring, students from both OES and Beaverton High School will go bowling together at Big Al’s.

Maria said that her move to this job came together quickly last year. “I’ve had a lot of important commitments — like watching my kids play basketball and baseball — and I was not ready for this kind of responsibilities. Now, the timing is perfect.”

Petie Wogan, sophomore, Maria’s son and esteemed Dig writer, isn’t so sure. “It’s a great thing — but then you have me, in the middle of it. Reporters are asking me questions, I’ve got to take crazy routes to my house so these guys can’t find me and ask these questions. I do what I can. I’m on the front-lines, most people would say.”

“I wouldn’t call these complaints so much as beautifully-phrased observations relating to the new job of my mother… who I call Maria… behind her back,” he mused.

Despite these mostly incoherent comments, the future of AASK is strong. In Maria, the program has a charismatic, tenacious, and highly competent leader. Gisela, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, is an asset as well.

Says ASAC co-chair Nathan C., “I know the transition will be smooth. We’re going to miss Myra, but we’re excited for Maria’s leadership.” For AASK, from here, it’s onwards and upwards.

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