Madison High counselor tells his story

7:10 pm

Approximately 8 years ago Madison High School received a Carnegie Grant through the Portland Schools Foundation with the intent of exploring the promise of small schools.

When I was a counselor at Hosford Middle school I was witness to the success that Hosford had in their creation of three small school communities using the theories and research of Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier. The work they did in creating smaller learning communities was very compelling and held promise for high schools that struggle with getting a large percentage of their students to state benchmarks.

My positive experience at Hosford as well as my experience as a parent with a child at a private school set me on a mission to work with the administration and teachers to restructure Madison High School. I visited schools in Texas, New York City as well as local schools to experience first hand the impact that reform could have on schools and learning.

Monthly and bi-monthly meetings with a team of teachers and administrations led ultimately to the writing of the Gates grant to secure the funds to create smaller learning communities. There were many of us on the staff that felt that by going small we would see academic gains in our students.

Once Madison was awarded the Gates-Meyer Memorial Grant it became obvious that the administration had one vision and that many on the staff had another vision of what small learning communities would look like. It was apparent that structure was going to dictate curriculum and course offerings and that students were to be locked in to communities without access to electives or programs just down the hall.

There were not enough electives, and I found that students had holes in their schedules that could not be filled within the small learning community. Students asking to take a class such as advanced biology in another community were told no and it was suggested they take that that course at a local community college.

Administrators were going through schedules looking for unauthorized crossovers, and I was being written up for insubordination for filling a student’s schedule with something other than a teaching assistant in his or her community when they wanted an elective in another community. I went from having an administrator who had not evaluated me in 5 years to one that scrutinized my every move.

My new administrator is a woman who has never been a teacher, let alone an administrator, and who is long on scrutiny but short on practicality or reason. I went from not having a blemish in a long career to a plan of assistance that in truth was designed to shut me up and stop asking questions about the efficacy of how we were delivering the model for education in our community.

I have a lot of support in my building and the questions that got me in to trouble are being asked publicly and have even come out in the Oregonian. Small schools are supposed to about shared governance, teacher as leader.

Creating autonomous schools work for start up schools but not for conversion schools. Hybrid models, 9th and 10th grade academies, team teaching, project based learning, performance outcome based learning and a lot of collaboration and hard work will get students to parity with their peers on the west side of this city.

Show me one west side school that is embracing some of the notions that are being imposed on the less affluent east side schools. They don’t exist.

I have been screaming for equity for these kids and limiting their choices, taking their school away from them and their community is not serving anyone but the ideologues who are building a reputation on the backs of the students and the families least likely to have the ability to fight this approach or any other approach as they are just too busy making a living and trying to survive.

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David Colton is a high school counselor and a former English and drama teacher.

filed under: Equity, High Schools, Labor Relations, Madison High, Reform

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14 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Thank you, David, for standing up for kids. The substandard education foisted on the the lower economic schools has been disastrous. And the treatment you received at the hands of PPS administration has been shameful.

    That said, I still question the idea that bringing students up to state benchmarks is a solid goal for an educational system. The system should be focussed on providing kids with a good education based upon their needs as students and adults. Hence, outcome based education is often the wrong approach. As is much of the other so called reform based upon the idea that student failure is from teacher failure. The first thing necessary is to create opportunities for students, and the second thing is to motivate them to take advantage of these opportunities. The whole idea of focussing on teacher training and outcomes becomes a facade for the failure of the system to provide those opportunities and the motivating factors necessary for students to succeed. In essence this was what you were trying to do — provide those opportunities — I applaud you for it.

  2. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    David, thank you for fighting for equal and fair treatment for the students at my alma mater. Senator Power, indeed.

  3. Comment from Lynn and Steve:

    Thanks for fighting for all our kids, David. You and the Madison teachers are our heroes.

    Susan Ohanian published the following today on your important story:

    We applaud your efforts and support you. Let us know how we can help.

  4. Comment from marcia:

    Thank you for speaking out. My daughter was at Roosevelt when it formed into small schools. She faced the same problem of not being able to cross over into the other “small schools” for electives. She was not allowed to continue in a guitar class that she had taken the year before the small schools were formed. I argued with the principal, and she was allowed to be a “teacher’s assistant.” Not exactly what she had in mind…When her small school, the Spanish Immersion school, had no Spanish teacher for her senior level Spanish class she was told to take the class at U of P. Only problem was, Roosevelt and U of P were on different schedules and there was no way it would work out. More flexibility, more course offerings, and full staffing…just a few of the things needed to make the small schools work.

  5. Comment from Marian:

    Thank you, Dave, for having the courage to stand up for your students. Madison has been neglected by the district for years. When I had my first child almost a decade ago, I listened as neighbors told me how dissatisfied they were with Madison’s leadership. We were hopeful with the small schools formation but things only got worse. Thank you for shedding some light on the mechanisms that are prohibiting this school from being successful.

    I have had personal experience with one of the administrators from the district who has continued to mishandle the reconfiguration of the K-8s in the Madison cluster and have heard reports on her ineptitude with Madison, too. She served as a principal for a brief period of time and I don’t know if she ever taught kids. She lacked any understanding of the needs and wants of the community and her only contribution was to institute road blocks in the way of progress. Parents have complained about her and nothing was done.

    During these last several years, the one consistent thing I’ve heard about Madison is that the teaching staff is wonderful. Good on you teachers! This is a powerful lesson you are teaching your kids and the greater community.

    I hope the rest of the city is listening.

  6. Comment from marksabatino:

    i was a former administrator with limited teaching experience evaluating subordinates with subdued antagonism. thank you for stating the facts. More luck in your next quest. Only the students are short changed, and in a larger sense, the community.

  7. Comment from Zarwen:

    David, thank you for having the stones to stick to your guns. Eastside kids need more adults like you.

    I have one question: what is your administrator’s background, and how the hell did she get the principal job at Madison???

  8. Comment from Nancy S.:


    Thank you for standing up for the students of Madison High School, and for speaking out about the devastating PPS policies affecting students representing communities with limited resources.

    Unlike Madison, converting Jefferson to small academies was a top-down decision, made by Vicki Phillips and Cynthia Guyer (formerly) of the Portland Schools Foundation – under the guise of the “Jefferson Design Team”.

    The Jefferson community was overwhelmingly opposed to the small academies (from the time they were proposed) for several reasons, none greater than the resulting loss of already-limited curricular opportunities to which you refer.

    Your voice on behalf of Madison (and other) students makes you a valuable asset to the district and our city – not one to be chastised or punished.

    On behalf of all under-valued PPS students on the losing end of equity issues – along with their friends and families – thank you for your voice; thank you for your character; thank you for your ethics.

    Your courage is what heroes are made of.

    Nancy Smith, President
    Jefferson High School PTSA

  9. Comment from mary:

    Thank-you for sharing your story and advocating for equity. The push for higher test scores in reading and math has resulted in a loss of academic opportunities. Drama, jazz band, choir, German language…these are just a few of the courses Madison cluster students cannot take due to the K-8 reconfiguration. The K-8s are struggling to provide a broad curriculum and equity with middle schools. If Madison continues on its path toward narrowly focused small schools our kids will be further shortchanged and less prepared for college. The school district currently provides separate and unequal education for students based on geography and parental income. I am hopeful to hear teachers advocating for equity at Madison. I am also excited about the connections being formed between school communities in the Madison cluster. We should not have to move or transfer away from our neighborhood to give our children a good education.

  10. Comment from gp:

    As a result of school closures and grade changes (closing middle schools, adding 8th grade to Madison & 6-8 to Jefferson, closing & merging schools into K-8, etc) many schools will be in violation of the City’s Zoning Code. Grades changes to schools are required to go through a city land use review, which allows an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed changes and how those changes impact neighborhoods. This hasn’t happened with any of the grade changes over the last few years, and rather than enforcing the Zoning Code the city is now talking about just changing the regulations so that PPS can do what they want without public land use review of how schools changes impact neighborhoods.

    To submit a complaint about the grade reconfigurations at Madison, Jefferson or other PPS schools you can submit an online reporting form for a “Zoning Violation” at In the explanation of the violation you describe the change that PPS made to the school (ex. “PPS is planning to add 8th grade to Madison High School without going through the City’s required land use review”).

    Or you can call the Bureau of Development Services (503-823-7300), which is responsible for enforcing the Zoning Code, and speak to Director Paul Scarlett or Planner Michelle Seward.

    Or you can contact the Planning Commission ( or Planning Director Gil Kelly (503-823-7700) and let them know that you are concerned that the City is not requiring PPS to comply with the Zoning Code and oppose changes the Zoning Code language that would let PPS change school grade reconfigurations without a city land use review.

  11. Comment from Marian:


    What code are they violating? Can you give us something concrete to reference?

  12. Comment from gp:

    Chapter 33.281 (Schools and School Sites) of the City’s Zoning Code (Title 33).

  13. Comment from Mim:

    Just wanted to say THANK YOU to David Colton!!! I am a Crater High School Mom – We inherited Julie Howland- Crater was an unlikely place for small schools – BUT we have it. They have successfully segregated our kids into “the nerds” “the jocks” “the cowboys” and the “alternate lifestyle” schools and in so doing eliminated MUCH curriculum and interaction. I read your story and cheered!! Thank you for standing up for the KIDS – shouldn’t that be what education is about? We are in a BATTLE to try to take back our school- but the “party line” and gag orders coming out of our High School feel like Nazi Germany! The ONE principal who was listening got fired- enter Julie – after 2 meetings with her my somethings not right alarm went off – googled her name and find out she is a talking head for small schools _WOW – Maybe we will help empower our kids to do some peaceful protesting – you have inspired me – Thank you!!!!

  14. Comment from N. Portland mom:

    Good luck, Mim!