When she became the principal of Sunnyside Environmental School (SES) last year, Dr. Eryn Berg says it felt like a homecoming. “I was born on Southeast 53rd St,” says Berg. “And my grandma used to have chickens. So last year when I moved my stuff over to the school and and heard the chickens, I was like, ‘I feel like I’m home.’” A former high school English teacher who also writes poetry, Berg is a huge fan of Sunnyside, the neighborhood, as well (though she currently lives in Roseway). With school starting on August 30th, she has her hands full with meetings and welcoming teachers back to SES but she took the time to speak to us in mid-August.
What did you do before being principal at SES?
I’ve been an administrator at PPS for 15 years. Before that I was a high school English teacher at the High School of Telecommunication Arts & Technology in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I used to live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
What do you love most about your job and SES?
Oh—everything. I love the mission and vision of the school, the commitment to place-based education, environmental and social justice. I love the kids! Plus, the teachers and the staff are just phenomenal. They are so committed to the kids and to education. Every single time I think about our teachers I get really excited for the year ahead and our next steps as a school and bringing that mission and vision into this world post-lockdown. We’re going to be able to do our morning meetings again! Our field trips! We’re so about community.
What do you love about Sunnyside, the neighborhood?
I love how it feels a little bit like a small town even though it’s part of the bigger city of Portland. People are always walking and riding bikes. Even the school grounds is used by all of the neighborhood. Everyone has an association and kinship with Sunnyside. Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani has his studio across from the playground where he does poetry out of his window every two weeks. I’ve gone a couple times and I’ll see all the neighborhood folks. Actually, no matter where you go in Sunnyside, you are gonna run into people you know. I’ll often see kids on the street, and they say, “Hey, that’s my principal!”
What’s one thing you would change about Sunnyside, if you could?
You know what I would love to see? Community Centers. Faubion School (on NE Dekum) was set up as a health center and a grocery store. Our schools should be set up to be more like community centers. Obviously it’s hard if there isn’t enough funding or staffing, but that’s one thing I’d like to see in Sunnyside.
What would you like Portlanders to know about SES?
I would love for more people to know about SES and what we do. In an ideal world, all schools would be like Sunnyside, where they are centered around environmental justice and where kids are taught to be critical thinkers and movers in our world. The kids at Sunnyside are such strong advocates! This is a school that is doing it. We have room to grow, of course—academics, rigor in the classroom, etc.—but we have all the right bones. So it’s just about moving forward. Those kids are gonna be the environmental leaders of the future.
We also have a couple of strong houseless advocates who are SES parents who I will call if there’s somebody in the park who might need food or other services.
Cat or Dog?
Oh dog–for sure! I have a 55-pound lab-shepherd mix. Sometimes she comes to school, but she’s not quite as good of a therapy dog as others. She gets a little shy and ducks away from folks. But during the summer I sometimes bring her in.