Oscar Leong, President of De la Salle North Catholic High School


Oscar Leong is the President of De La Salle North Catholic High School. In this episode Oscar discusses De La Salle's innovative corporate work study program that provides tremendous opportunity for economically disadvantaged students to get a college-prep education, while at the same time providing a diverse, motivated, enthusiastic entry level work force.

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(We use an audio transcription service and please excuse any errors)


Blake St. Onge  00:57

Welcome back to the podcast for this season of the podcast. We have our community partner who has a major contribution to the education community and the professional business community here in town, De La Salle North Catholic and I'm really excited to have Oscar Leong, the President of De La Salle on the podcast with me today. So Oscar welcome to the show.


Oscar Leong

Blake happy to be here. What an honor.


Blake St. Onge

So Oscar for those that may not know about De La Salle and you, why don't we start with a little bit of background and foundation of who you are and how you came to Portland.


Oscar Leong  01:59

Absolutely. So thank you again for having me on the show and just an honor to be here at De La Salle North Catholic High School. And I my icebreaker for folks is I apologize. I'm from California and I brought traffic. But the reality is actually the start of my fourth year here in Portland. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California. I'm a first generation kid, very proud of that. And people ask me for what brought you to De La Salle North Catholic High School. And honestly, it was out of the mission of the school and the Christian Brothers. I am a Christian Brothers educated young man, I went to high school, like delis, our Catholic in downtown Los Angeles, big differences. We were single sex school. And we did not have the Work Program, which is really the beauty of a school like De La Salle North Catholic High School, the opportunity to be the leader of a school like this was really appealing to me. The fact of who the school serves here in Portland was super appealing to me. And so again, I'm just thankful and blessed to be the president of the school.


Blake St. Onge  03:03

Walk us through a little bit, you know about data set, how long has the schools or been in Portland. And then I know obviously, I'm on the ambassador board of the school. So I know that mission well. But for those that are listening, a little bit about the history of the school, what sort of network it's part of national scale, and then let's like sort of dive into some of the unique pieces that make the school really tick in the community.


Oscar Leong  03:25

But first off, De La Salle has a unique history. They're the first replication of a very important program that started in Chicago, back in 1996. So I am a Christian Brothers boy, but I give a lot of credit to the Jesuit brothers. There was Father Foley, who the Jesuit priest had this crazy idea to figure out a way to fund an inner city Chicago school, where families could not afford a tuition. And the idea was, hey, what if the kids could work one day of the week. And these companies and partners could facilitate and offset tuitions for these families. So when the school got off the ground in Chicago, a Christian brother found out what these judges were doing, and said, Hey, we should be doing the exact same thing. And so in 1998, the story I heard is, the Christian Brothers decided through a contact that this school should exist in Portland, Oregon. And so now De La Salle North 20 years later, started I think ignited the fire nationwide because up until 1996, there was no talk about replicating the program nationwide. So once De La Salle North Catholic important started, a chain of events happened. So in the last 20 years, the partnership has grown for schools like De La Salle to be at 36 across the country. With the understanding and the long, five to 10 year goal to grow to 50 schools, very ambitious. And in the coming years, you'll see and hear about three or four more schools across the country opening. And I say, like De La Salle Catholic because yeah, we copied the program. I think we really made it what it is today.


Blake St. Onge  05:24

I had no idea that De La Salle North Catholic was part of the catalyst to sort of explode across the country.


Oscar Leong  05:31

Yeah, I think if De La Salle didn't take that plunge, right. Yeah, try it. I think that caught fire, and then other schools that you know, other people across the country, you know, we can do that. And I think the beauty of the program is the opportunity for these wonderful kids to be given the grand opportunity to level playing field to not only get educated, and you know, the idea of college prep is super cool, super sexy. But the idea of being able to work in professional spaces. That's honestly a game changer. Yeah. in a major way, right?


Blake St. Onge  06:12

Yeah. So walk us through a little bit of what that what that means. So maybe about just the background of the school in terms of its mission and diversity of sort of students in that regard here in Portland, and then also maybe deeper into the corporate work study program. And what does that what does that mean for the student? And then also, what does it mean for the community and for the business community?


Oscar Leong  06:37

Absolutely. So I think you know, what we have in common with the rest of the partner schools across the country, is that we all serve the same demographic of students, not racially, but in terms of where they fall, in terms of lack of opportunity. So all the schools like De La Salle North Catholic High School, abide by a simple rule: offering a college prep, religious-based education, to students and families that could not afford a private school education. And that's a game changer, right? Because, when families can't afford a private school, then doors close to them. Because sometimes, for example, in most of the parks across the country, the opportunities or choices that kids have, are very minimal. So being able to choose a school like De La Salle where they're not turned away, we do not turn away any family or child, because they cannot afford a tuition. And so we really want to make sure that that opportunity is out there for families. It's crucial. But I tell families, and also tell partners, the school is really the bridge, to bring these two communities together. I think families buy into it, they buy into the dream, because most of our families and parents don't work in those corporate spaces. And they may have their own dream of working in those spaces. And then the same time corporate America saying we need talent. We need talent from kids of color. Kids that normally don't come into our spaces. Well, that's why we're the perfect marriage. Right? I believe that we're the bridge to greater possibilities. When that happens, it is a perfect circle opportunity. Yeah. And I tell folks, our job is to create this beautiful circle, bring kids into the school, who have talent, have desire, have great work ethic, who will do well in the classroom, be great citizens, go on to a great university. So they're gonna ask you, Blake, Hey, where'd you go to college? Where do you major in? These kids don't know. Right? And you're going to inspire them to consider following your footsteps. And by the time four years goes by very, very quickly, our kids are getting to colleges across the country, and will sooner or later come back to Portland to fill in the spots as leaders of the new generation. Right? That's the full circle opportunity.


Blake St. Onge  09:16

I mean, it really is amazing, haven't been a part of it just for the last six years. So walk us through a little bit of the makeup of the ability up north in Portland, how many students what's sort of the graduation rate versus you know, compared to maybe, you know, schools and it's the same general area of where the school sits sort of neighborhood, you know, schools, walk through some of those pieces, and then for graduation rates for seniors and just not makeup and then we'll sort of talk through the work study piece of that and how that comes into play.


Oscar Leong  09:46

Great questions. I think what makes us totally different and unique or important is the demographic of students that we serve. But what's unique about De La Salle we're the most diverse school in all of Oregon. Having diversity on campus. Because it is such an important part of our school, and the De La Salle heritage. But the nice thing is that families come to us from all over Portland and also Vancouver, believe it or not, I think the word is spreading about the work that we do and the opportunities. So I tell people, you know, we're not just a North Portland school, we're proud to be in North Portland, we really represent, you know, the melting pot, that is Portland, Oregon. And then for the companies, I tell them flat out, you know, our opportunity is to help these kids branch out into the city. And we got as far as Tigard and Beaverton and if your company is beyond that, let us know, we'll figure out how to get our kids there. It's a great opportunity. We're not afraid to take a new partner and test the waters.


Blake St. Onge  10:50

From a school makeup perspective. Just real quick on that and the graduation rates. So am I understanding correctly that last year, so the graduation or 2021, let's just say placement into college was nearly 100% of all your students that were grad that graduated last year?


Oscar Leong  11:07

Yeah, that the proof is in the pudding, you know, the fact that we had 100% of our graduates move on to a two or four year college. That's proof, that's the work, right. And one thing that's really important that I share with folks, you know, yes, we're a private school, and kids apply to get into the school recommendations and test scores. But we take a lot of kids who are maybe one or two grades behind, but also when they get to us as ninth graders, if you were to track these children, just based on the community and their counterparts at our local school, most of the kids that fall into our category, they're not projected to be college entry or college graduates. But we try our best in a four year period, to really be with them, walk with them, and introduce them to ideas. And that spark is quick, I think what makes it super unique is watching and talking to a young boy or girl, when they come in is as quiet and maybe a little scared freshmen, and to watch them as polished seniors, to not only walk this campus, but walk in the corporate work study spaces, and they're doing things that I in my wildest dreams never thought I could do in high school.  And they build that resume, right? So our seniors, when they walk out of here, their resume is stronger than most four year graduates. Because they worked generally for four years. Some have worked with one partner all four years. But some also had the opportunity to try different things over four years. Yeah, it's not a set thing. Being a young person, Blake as you know, the not one track for everybody. But we have to figure out how to get them there. But internally, making sure that when we have a student of the freshmen with us freshman year, we are with that student for four years. And to have that graduation, I would love for all your audience to be a part of a De La Salle graduation because it's not just a graduation, this this is a celebration, we have our graduation at University of Portland. Yeah, board a smaller school that has it. So our enrollment right now is 280 kids. We want to grow to 350. And for your partners and audience to know, we can only grow to 350 if we have jobs for every single student. Yeah, well, I need you Portland, I need you to because I can't take in 20 or 30 more students, if I don't have a job for them. The one thing that we don't do is we don't break promises. So that's a really important part. But getting back to graduation, it's not just a child and a mother and father a graduation. They're bringing relatives and because for a lot for a lot of these kids. There'll be the first one to graduate from high school. And they'll be the first one to actually walk on a college campus. That's an amazing moment.


Blake St. Onge  14:25

Right yeah, yeah. 


Oscar Leong  14:26

I think you know, folks when they look at us Oh, that's just another private school No, we're not we're no way more than that.


Blake St. Onge  14:33

Yeah. And I'll tell you I I've had the opportunity a couple of times to come in in the summer that you know, June/July to do sort of the two week intensive you know, with new students coming in and teach corporate communications and some of those things that I've had a chance to, to help the school with on a from a service standpoint. And so doing that, let's just say in July, right of some year and then going back to the changing destinies lunch in April. Seeing those kids then on stage that sort of were in that, you know, pre ninth grade training class or whatever, you know, sort of engaged in class, it was incredible to see, to see that difference. And it’s just such an appreciation for what it is that you know, the school is doing. And so I think, so let's dive a little bit deeper into the corporate work study program. So just as a baseline, every student that goes to school, at De la Salle works at a corporate partner, one day a week, and then goes to school four days a week, beyond all their extracurriculars. It's, it's unbelievable the amount of things these students are doing. I mean, it's incredible. So the work study program, one day a week, they go on site to a corporate partner. For right now it's virtual you know, because of COVID. But, and then four days a week it's school.  Let’s talk about that, and what does that do for both the partner and in the student?


Oscar Leong  15:59

Before I go too far into this, I do want to make clear for your audience to know that, you know, COVID, did have a huge and continues to have a huge impact on our school. So pre COVID. And once we get through COVID, the idea of the school and the promise that we made to every family is that every single student that comes to De La Salle will have a job. And that job is really important. Now, folks say, Well, what kind of job are you talking about? You know, we really want to partner with corporate America. We want our students to be in spaces where they're going to aspire to be. So right now, folks, I will put the word out and the aspartic community, we are looking for more work partners, right now it's crucial that we bounce back. Right now only about 60% of our students are working. We're getting by. But you know, for me, the part that really hurts me is knowing that a lot of these kids are used to waiting. They're waiting for the call up. As you can imagine, like that Major League Baseball, right? Our kids right now are a triple A. They're not working yet. But they're waiting for the call up. Yeah. So but they're really ambitious. And so the way the week works, when things are normal, is once if you if you come onto our campus on a given day, we're missing a whole grade level. And that grade is offsite working. So how does that work? Well, the kids check in bright and early at 7:45. And then the folk, the kid they go to work, we shuttle them off to work in our bands. We also use the local transport train station, transported to downtown Portland, and then they spend in essence eight hours of their day, working in those professional spaces. And comes in Well, what will they do? Whatever you expect an employee to do. We're asking companies to respectfully bring in our beautiful kids, and show them inspire them to work in those spaces. So it's pretty amazing. I know some of these kids work, in essence a whole day, and also play sports and they play basketball and those kinds of things. Yeah, it's hard. And so they have to get from work that particular day, and get over to practice or a club meeting or something. So they're spending a lot of time outside of school, trying to maintain not only the high school experience, but also this professional experience, and balancing this out. All with the collective education. So it's kind of unique, pretty cool.


Blake St. Onge  18:38

So from a community perspective, if I'm a partner that you know, one of the corporate partners that are out there, how many how many do we have right now? Is it 60 partners? 75? But what's the sort of the partner count if you will?


Oscar Leong  18:51

Right, right now we're a little bit low. I mean, what in the world is perfect? We're about 90 partners. Yeah, that will take in one to three students or four students. Yeah. So again, right now, it's a different time, right? But, you know, the companies that are with us, I mean, I'm so thankful for companies like OnPoint our number one partner, The Standard, Tillamook, Legacy, Columbia Sportswear, Nike. I'm so thankful for these companies to say yes to us. Yeah. I do want to acknowledge also a company in downtown Portland called Puppet.  This year Puppet did something that was pretty phenomenal. They actually gave us believe it or not a whole floor in their building. That whole floor now has our students doing virtual work off site for different companies. I would like to invite parents to come check it out. You might say well, yeah, pretty intriguing. Yeah, we have plenty of space for new partners. And so our kids are going down to this office in downtown Portland – Puppet – and they have different stations based on our partnerships. That's a very unique thing right now it's going on.


Blake St. Onge  20:02

And so for the students, so the corporate partners effectively help to offset a portion of the student's tuition, right? Like that's, that's part of the program. So it's an exchange in exchange for, for the student being on site and working, there's a payment that helps to offset their tuition. So that effectively allows the student to have this private college prep education. Right.


Oscar Leong  20:25

So you know, we talk to companies, and we say pretty much what we're asking you OnPoint or Legacy or Tillamook, hire one employee. And that employee gets converted to four students here De La Salle, because you'll get a freshman, a sophomore, junior senior, and those students, that team of students will be with that company the whole year. And then given a week, those kids rotate throughout the week to be present with the company. Now that there is a financial transaction that happens, obviously, this is not something that's super, we'll call cheap. But investment is great, right? Oh, yeah. And so that investment really allows for all for students to be able to afford the cost of our school. If you go to our website, our costs for one child to attend to school, we post is a little under $3,000 tuition. When you compare it to our wonderful partners across Portland, you know that their tuition is what they charge, our families can afford that. But even the dollar amount that we post, most families cannot afford that. Well, even with the program, we still offer additional scholarship and financial aid, so that we don't turn away any child that come to our school.


Blake St. Onge  21:43

It's just unbelievable, Oscar, I think, I mean, one of the, you know, got a couple of minutes left, but one of the big, I think sort of amazing things that's happened in the last 18 months is the fact that that De La Salle has got a brand new campus. And in a COVID-strapped time, the amount of will and energy that not only the you know, staff, and yourself and everybody that sort of involved with De La Salle, but the community around it, not the partners, and just the donors and just overall community in Portland have come together to help support financially, you know, with the ability to create a brand new school and which and ribbon cutting is next week.


Oscar Leong  22:27

Yeah, I think that store in itself is very unique. I'm very transparent people. I'm very honest. You know, three years ago, we were facing the reality that possibility De La Salle North Catholic would not be here in 2021. So we had to engage, activate everyone in the nine nation community to be a part of this capital campaign and a new school project. And thankfully, people saw the importance of a school like De La Salle North Catholic. Well, one of our best friends and former board member Mike Kelly said it best: De La Salle North Catholic is the most important school in Portland. I really do believe it is yeah, again, taking nothing away from other schools, our wonderful partners. I just say in case just this makes it on the air. My wonderful friends at St. Mary's Academy, Central Catholic, La Salle, Valley Catholic, and also our very good friends at Jesuit High School. Yeah, all doing wonderful work. Yeah, but the opportunity to De La Salle for these kids is pretty remarkable. And having the opportunity to walk into a new campus, this campus represents now, the final resting home for the school. Yeah, we know that we're gonna be here for 50 years plus, we're not moving. And I think was a really important part, not only for donors that believe in us, but also for the community to know. There's no chance ever of De La Salle not being here. And you know, one thing if you look at just in terms of society, and what kids go through a lot of kids of color struggle with things being taken away from them. And I think now they know, this school is going to exist for a very, very long time. There's a lot of tranquility there. And I think also it provides a lot of hope for the community. So yes, our new campus is phenomenal. And by the way I want to thank everyone. You made the dream come true for a new campus, but also the dream of a new gym. He was saying, Well, what do you mean by that Oscar? Well, for the last 20 years, the school did not have a gymnasium, believe it or not. And so we had to go from gym to gym for volleyball, boys and girls basketball. And I'm not sure if you heard the story folks in that but the De La Salle North boys basketball team has done some phenomenal work in the last eight or nine years, and they were back to back state champions in 2018 with no gym


Blake St. Onge  25:07

No gym.


Oscar Leong  25:09

Again, a lot of these kids had to go to work, travel to get to a gym that was rented, and then figure out where the home was going to be. Now finally, we have a gym to call home. So it's kind of unique. We're beyond blessed, that super excited. So I want to invite people, Hey, come on down to North Portland, go to our game, our first game is going to be December 10. I tell people flat out it's going to be rockin.


Blake St. Onge  25:37

Well as your I mean, and you know, the next couple weeks are going to be big too, with the with the ribbon cutting next week, you know, next week, and then you know, obviously the fall auction, which is which is a big a big event for the school. I know that and I've you know, my wife and I are you know, and we've got several friends that that will be there for that we just can't wait to continue to be a part of the school. And I just want to say thank you, you know, for joining today and sharing you know about the school sharing your background. It's just such an incredible mission that De La Salle is doing. And I think to thank you to all the partners that have stuck with us. I think we were talking with Lisa yesterday, we've got 17 new partners this year, which is just incredible. And just thanks for coming on. And sharing, just really appreciate your time.


Oscar Leong  26:21

I'm honored to be with you. And I know you've done so much work behind the scenes. I want to thank you and the rest of the ambassador board for doing tireless work. Believe in the school. We had to figure out a way to make some boats honorary knights, what do you think about that?


Blake St. Onge  26:41

I think that Yeah


Oscar Leong  26:42

But if you allow me, I'd want to make sure that I thank all the donors that believed in us, again, all the current and past board members that believed in this little school, it 20 years ago, we had people step up and say, Yes, I believe in this school, when it was just a thought. You know, and people early on just said, I think we can do this. And if it were not for that energy, we would not be here in 2021. So a lot of people to thank all around. So thank you.