Time for an Honest Discussion About High Schools

7:42 am

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.

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

filed under: Equity, Facilities, High Schools, School Closures

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29 Responses

  1. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    I feel like we’ve discussed this before (maybe it was over on ‘morehockey’). So, which 2 close and why? Or (to look at it positively) which 8 to keep and why?

  2. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    I’ll start:

    Close Franklin shift half to Marshall and half to Cleveland.

    Close Benson and move those kids to Jeff.

    Not sure if you could also close Madison and move those kids to where???

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I think we should start by looking at the distribution of high school-age students in Portland.

    I’d like the district to publish a map showing where our 11K+ high school students live, and also where our sixth graders and kindergarteners live, so we have a sense of how population is shifting.

    Then we can draw lines, grouping those student (and future students) into eight high school clusters of equal size.

    After we’ve done that, we can look at our existing buildings and see how they fit the actual demographics.

    I think (hope) that’s what Carole Smith has in mind.

  4. Comment from Zarwen:

    Just FYI, Cleveland could not absorb half of Franklin’s population at this point. Madison is the nearest high school that would have room for them.

    Moving Benson into Jefferson doesn’t make much sense because the infrastructure and equipment that support Benson’s program would have to be moved. As half of the Jeff population is at Benson already, I don’t see where much is gained there.

    I would think that merging Roosevelt and Jefferson, and Marshall and Madison, might make sense, but Steve’s point is well taken about looking at where the students actually live first. Based on that, it might make more sense to merge Lincoln and Wilson. I wonder how much of Lincoln’s student body comes from the east side?

    On a related note, I was at a meeting recently where a district employee declared that the story in the O about tearing down 10 schools was based entirely on the recommendation Magellan/DeJong and Co. had made to PPS, and NOT any official position of PPS. A few days later, I heard a rumor that Magellan/Dejong, with Mincberg’s help, had gotten the O to print the story as a way to put pressure on the school board because things weren’t moving quickly enough for them.

    I’m with you, Steve: let’s fire these consultants who are here only to “take the money and run” and are so shameless they would rush decision-making that will affect our children and our city for the next century.

    Also, I think the boundary review you recommended for the high schools needs to happen for the elementaries and K-8s as well. We have already seen how these new “reconfigurations” have wreaked havoc on enrollment in the buildings. Reconfiguring/expanding the buildings makes NO sense until, as Steve says, we look at where the children actually live.

    I’d bet the mortgage that such a review would point to reopening Kenton, Rose City Park, and Smith, perhaps others.

  5. Comment from Steve R.:

    I have it on good authority that of the two names I assumed, only one of them is correct.

    But I don’t think that really matters.

    The point is that we have high-paid outside contractors trying to dictate public policy in Portland.

    Does anybody at PPS have the guts to stand up to these people?

  6. Comment from NMLeggett:

    Lincoln: They have a 13% transfer out rate. District average is 40% for High Schools. 15% of their population transfers in. 14 from Cleveland; 15 from Franklin; 22 from Grant; 45 from Jefferson; 8 from Madison; 6 from Marshall; 37 from Roosevelt; 47 from Wilson; 15 from outside district or unknown.
    I recommend seeking out a copy of ‘School Profiles & Enrollment Data 2007-2008’ from the District. It has the information you want.
    So sweet.
    Nicole Leggett

  7. Comment from Steve R.:

    Current high school cluster populations:

    Cleveland: 1426
    Franklin: 1431
    Grant: 1512
    Jefferson: 1603
    Lincoln: 1375
    Madison: 1394
    Marshall: 1640
    Roosevelt: 1396
    Wilson: 1601

    How about this:

    Close Lincoln, give the north half of the cluster to Roosevelt and the southern half to Grant.

    Shift the Grant cluster South to absorb part of the existing Cleveland cluster, and give the north part of existing Grant cluster to Madison.

    Close Franklin. North part of cluster goes to Madison, south part goes to Cleveland.

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    If you look at the cluster populations it looks like you have just about the right number of high schools in PPS. 1,300 to 1,650 — seems about right to me. Add in Benson and it makes perfect sense. Don’t close any — just make them all work.

  9. Comment from Neisha:

    I’m with Steve B on this. I added those numbers and got 13,387 high school students. That’s enough to fill 10 comprehensive high schools. Also, isn’t enrollment supposed to level off and then go up a bit? Why risk closing two schools and then putting kids in trailers in 10 years?

  10. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    You’re not accounting for special focus, alternative and charter school out-transfers.

    Notice Benson does not have an attendance area, and takes attendance from the neighborhood schools.

    So realistically, we’re talking about around 11K students at ten schools, or around 1,100 per school. Can PPS provide comprehensive curriculum at that level?

    Maybe so. But they will have to even out enrollment — i.e. actually address the transfer policy — to do this.

    Maybe they think it’s easier to close schools than actually address the transfer policy.

    My point in throwing out the “close two schools” line is just to get the conversation going. PPS seems pretty shy about this. I’m glad to get the conversation going, since I’ve got nothing to lose.

  11. Comment from Terry Olson:

    I’m curious, Steve. Does Portland have ‘special focus’ schools for grades 9-12.

    I think providing comprehensive curricula for schools enrolling even 1000 students is doable. Smaller is generally better anyway according to the research. We just have to start thinking differently about how instruction is delivered, especially in the core areas.

    Of course, adequate funding is key no matter how big the school.

    I’m wary about closing two high schools. All the existing schools have self-identified communities and, to some extent, loyalties. I doubt that too many Franklin families would be happy about going as far north as Madison.

    You’re right, though. It’s probably good to get the conversation started. (It HAS started. Just not publicly.)

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Benson, Alliance, Meek pro-tech, MLC, etc., all have high school offerings.

    I’m not sure which are called “alternative” and which are “special focus,” but they all draw from neighborhood schools.

  13. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    I was thinking geographically with my recommendations when I made them. Roosevelt has to stay open and viable. Same too for outlying Wilson, Marshall and probably Madison. All bets are off for everybody else closer to the center of the district.

    Zarwen, because Jeff has the huge acreage it would make more sense to reconfigure a combined Benson/Jefferson arts and tech facility there than at the more cramped Benson site (think the Benson site is attractive to builders?). Sense we’re dreaming, I was building new, modern shop facilities at this imaginary school too.

    (Good luck closing Lincoln! Never happen.)

  14. Comment from Neisha:

    Good point! It may well be tough to provide comprehensive course offerings with those numbers.

  15. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    The suggestion to close Lincoln actually makes the most sense if we’re going to close high schools.

    It’s the largest geographic attendance area with the smallest attendance area population, much of which is actually geographically closer to other high schools.

  16. Comment from Neisha:

    Whitebuffalo, if they move Lincoln to the NW industrial area, all bets may be off for Roosevelt as a new Lincoln boundary may be able to encompass at least parts of the Roosevelt cluster.

  17. Comment from Neisha:

    Or what Steve R. said.

  18. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    A new Lincoln/Roosevelt school in the NW industrial area would be a fascinating sociological experiment if nothing else.

    Closing Lincoln would be a political nightmare. You may be right about numbers, attendance area, etc but you’ve got to be kidding yourself into think that THAT community would stand idly by and see their school closed.

    By the way, have you driven from St. John’s to the NW industrial area lately–it isn’t as close as you might think.

    This was my main objection to the combine Jefferson and Roosevelt theory. Driving from many parts of the Jefferson attendance area to Roosevelt isn’t a breeze either.

    I realize that one of the stipulations was to design these schools around “where the kids were not the buildings” but again, you need to be a little bit realistic about where the currently buildings are and more importantly the land those buildings are on. There aren’t many open lots anymore that can house a comprehensive HS with all the adjoining fields, lots, etc.

  19. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’m being a little bit of a tease when I suggest closing Lincoln, even though it really should be the first to be considered for closing if we’re going that route.

    But in all seriousness, I think we should keep them all open, rebalance programming, and rebalance attendance. Ten schools, each with around 1,100 students? Sounds pretty OK to me.

  20. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    That number is nice (1100). Too bad the buildings were designed for half again that much. That’s a lot of empty rooms to heat, etc.

  21. Comment from Terry Olson:

    But in all seriousness, I think we should keep them all open, rebalance programming, and rebalance attendance. Ten schools, each with around 1,100 students? Sounds pretty OK to me.”

    Yes! Now you’re talking, Steve.

  22. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    You know this what I’ve thought all along. Remember, I got my start in all this nonsense by criticizing the way neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers divest tens of millions of dollars annually from our poorest neighborhoods.

    But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dispassionately look at our district, and keep all options on the table.

    The district wants to talk closures? Let’s talk closures. Start with Lincoln.

    Oh… that hurts a wealthy constituency, and it’ll never fly? Okay, then maybe we don’t want to talk closures.

    Get where I’m coming from?

    Still, even keeping ten high schools, we may want to reconstruct one or more of them, and we have a nice chunk of land in the old Whittaker site that could be used. There may be other options for reconfiguring things, too, and we shouldn’t take them off the table.

  23. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I am opposed to closing any high school, think they should all be comprehensive high schools and Benson should be fixed. Having said that the most obvious high school to close would be Marshall — it is in a shopping mall and their students could easily go to Madison and Cleveland.

    This was the case when I was on the school board and fought the closure of Jackson. I never mentioned Marshall because I was then, as I am now, against closing any high schools.

    Interesting story from those years ago school board days. I single handedly saved Cleveland from closing. It was gone, but I made such a fuss it was not closed. My reward? The next week the leaders of the Cleveland group sat behind my then wife and badmouthed me when I tried to save Jackson.

    School administrators and school boards have a tendancy to get on a roll and just work against common sense. Happens all the time. Did anyone see the math story in The Oregonian this week? Hey, what a surprise, a huge definitive study (not stupid educational research) showed that grade school and middle school math needs to be a combination of traditional fundamentals and problem solving (ala connected math). Of course, PPS, Evergreen in Vancouver and all sorts of other districts went solely connected math several years ago. Or how about districts going solely to whole language instead of also including phonics many years ago. School closures often works the same way. What is the latest trend (K-8 ring a bell) — NOT what does common sense tell us.

  24. Comment from Neisha:

    I, too, was teasing a bit with the Lincoln/Roosevelt merger. But, that 1100 number (which should be a nice number) does concern me somewhat in light of budget problems and the fact that kids in K-8s are getting significantly fewer options in math (let alone what we’re now calling “enrichment”) than kids in the large westside middle schools. We don’t seem to do a good job at spreading resources around. We also need to figure out what to do about Benson so that it goes back to doing what it did so well and so that it doesn’t draw from just 2-3 schools. Anyone with more history with the district care to talk about that?

  25. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    What does Benson do that needs to be saved? What programs does it offer specefically? What new and emerging technologies would help Benson be the polytech. of the future?

  26. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Steve Buel addressed the trouble at Benson in a guest post on More Hockey Less War last September.

  27. Comment from Zarwen:

    I am coming into this discussion late, but first I will address Terry about focus options at high schools. Benson has the only schoolwide focus option 9-12 program. But there are many others. Lincoln and Cleveland have their famous IB programs. Grant has the Institute for Science and Math, also the Japanese Immersion. Cleveland also has Spanish and Chinese Immersion. Franklin has a “World Languages Institute” with apparently no language immersion, as they are all at Cleveland and Grant. (Moving them over to Franklin would help balance enrollment, but it’s way too obvious a solution for PPS.) The other programs Steve R. mentioned are a few of the alternative programs, but there are quite a few others; NAYA has one at “Old Whitaker,” for example.

    Steve R. mentioned “a nice chunk of land at the old Whitaker site,” but I suspect you really mean the “NEW Whitaker” site. Either way, the operative word is “had,” as both are up for sale. “Old Whitaker” is to be sold to NAYA, its current tenant, and most of the “New Whitaker” site will be sold to Concordia College.

    Some interesting history about the almost-closure of Cleveland: the land for Cleveland was donated by a wealthy family (I need to look up the name) on the condition that the school never close. Should that happen, title to the land reverts backs to the donating family. The end result was that Washington HS ended up closing–and now belongs to developers who have decided not to “develop” it because of the slow housing market.

    Steve R., whose numbers did you use for the HS population figures? If it’s PPS, then they are incorrect, because the PPS numbers do not include private nor home-school students. Also, I haven’t heard anyone factor in the (very small) populations of LEP or Trillium Charter schools. The upshot being that there are probably a lot more teenagers living in PDX than we realize. Maybe more of them would attend their local high schools if they thought they were worth attending.

  28. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    You’re right, I mean the new old Whitaker site, which my wife (Madison class of ’82) says is more appropriately called the old Adams site.

    Is it all being sold to Concordia? Is that a done deal? If so, that’s a real shame.

    Yes, the numbers are PPS students living within each cluster, including charter, alternative and special focus students, but not including home schoolers and private schoolers.

    It is a very valid point that PPS could capture more students, particularly in the gutted areas (Jefferson, Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall), if they supported comprehensive schools everywhere.

  29. Comment from Zarwen:

    Steve R.,

    To answer your question, PPS divided the old Adams site into two parcels. One was to be sold (presumably to Concordia, as they had been interested in it for some time), and the other was to build a new school on.

    I have since heard a rumor that Central Catholic bought the running track, but I do not believe it, because it is way too far away from their campus for it to make any sense for them to buy it.

    I have it on eyewitness authority that, at a recent School Board work session, Ruth Adkins raised the issue of the new school that was promised on the old Adams site. No clear conclusion was reached, but the eyewitness told me that Wynde was VERY uncomfortable when she raised the issue.

    I can’t help thinking that partitioning the land for sale was a stupid idea, esp. if the “new school” is supposed to be a K-8. How do you build a bigger school on a smaller parcel? I know you can build vertically, but more kids need a BIGGER school yard, not a smaller one!