Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

Protesting the anticipated “involuntary transfer” of a highly-regarded counselor, around 50 Madison High School students walked out today, also citing discontent with the “small schools” model that has them constrained in narrow academic silos.

This model, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that is coming to an end, was implemented exclusively at the four high schools in Portland’s poorest neighborhoods: Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

Under this model, each school was carved into three or four narrowly-focused academies, each with its own administration, course catalog, and student body. Some resources, like PE and health teachers, have been shared, but in general, these small schools have proven to be a way to offer students fewer options at greater expense to the district.

In addition to being widely unpopular, the schools converted to this model have the highest drop-out rates in Portland Public Schools.

The small schools model hasn’t gone over well in the Jefferson cluster, where the community overwhelmingly opposed its implementation. Under popular pressure, and with the support of the site administration, the district has finally agreed to merge the two main Jefferson academies for 2008-09.

Unfortunately, a strict small school model remains in place at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt, with students unable to take classes outside of their academies. John Wilhelmi, the district’s point man on high school design, is known to be a proponent of this model, and absent the kind of resistance put up by the Jefferson community — and now by students at Madison — it is unlikely the district will change on ts own.

A sensible compromise would be to convert the “academies” into “learning communities,” with academic advisors (paid for with the FTE formerly spent on administrators) working with dedicated sections of the student body, but without students constrained to a strictly narrowed range of course offerings.

Who can argue that it makes sense to prevent Madison student Joe Scorse from taking a German class offered on campus, simply because it’s not offered in his academy?

It’s time to acknowledge that the small schools model has been neither well-received (these four schools continue to have the highest out-transfer rates) nor successful in its stated goal of narrowing the “achievement gap” (see the link on drop-out rates above).

The massive in-transfers at Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland show that what students and parents overwhelmingly want is a comprehensive high school. Why can’t PPS see fit to provide that in every neighborhood, not just the wealthy ones?

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