Time for an Honest Discussion About High Schools

After broadly hinting that we need to close two high schools in the press in January, Portland Public Schools abruptly pulled back from discussing the future of our existing ten high schools publicly.

The need to focus energy and resources on completing the questionable K-8 transition seemed to be the reason, but Beth Slovic at the Willamette Week published an e-mail yesterday that points to another reason.

The e-mail, from outside facilities consultant Bill DeJong, criticizes the leaders of Carole Smith’s high school team (not mentioned by name, but presumably Leslie Rennie Hill and John Wilhelmi) for not moving quickly enough toward the kind of change he would like to see — i.e. school closures.

Superintendent Smith sent an e-mail last evening explaining that the high school discussion and facilities discussion are on separate tracks. It is a reasonable position, worth supporting in the face of outside consultants who would rush us toward school closures.

“The work is urgent, but it must not be frenetic or imposed quickly upon the community to meet an artificial timeline. Any changes will require community vetting and ownership, as well as thoughtful planning before implementation; this much we have learned from past school closures and reconfiguration,” wrote Smith.

Smith acknowledges that our “liberal transfer policy” has a role in some high schools sitting “half empty, while others are bursting.”

She also responds indirectly to DeJong’s criticism: “Decisions about the size and location of our high school buildings, while important, will come as the result of this strategy. The buildings cannot drive the strategy. For that reason, and very consciously, I have asked the Portland School Board not to include our high schools in this winter’s facilities discussions.”


So let’s talk about high schools.

I’m willing to accept that we would be better off with fewer high schools. Eight high schools would give us an average size of about 1,400, enough to fund a full curriculum. (All five of Beaverton’s neighborhood high schools have more than 2,000 students.)

There are a couple preconditions I would like to add to the conversation, in addition to the “buildings cannot drive the strategy” bit.

  1. Siting of schools must be based on where students live, not where they’ve transfered.
  2. Comprehensive highs must be the centerpiece of our high school strategy. This is key to equity. These schools must be available to all students, in the neighborhoods where they live. Special focus options should be centrally located, like Benson, and as is done in districts like Beaverton. They should not be co-located with neighborhood programs, and definitely not substitute for comprehensive schools in poor neighborhoods.
  3. The “liberal transfer policy” must be examined in light of equalizing programming across the district.
  4. Siting must not be influenced in any way by the commercial value of the land of existing facilities.

Smith closes her e-mail, “It’s high time to have that conversation, and I hope you will join us.”

I couldn’t agree more. Maybe the first step is to fire the outside consultants who don’t seem to get that we want and orderly process. The next step is to lay all the cards on the table. Anybody who’s paid attention knows that we’re talking about closing at least two high schools.

Let’s get it all out in the open.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.