July 29, 2008
The story of “small schools” in Portland Public Schools is one of desperation, hope, good intentions, bad will, and, ultimately, bitter irony.
PPS turned to the model when it had run out of ideas on ameliorating the “achievement gap.” Put aside for a moment the fact that schools are just one small input in the equation that yields abysmal school success rates for children affected by poverty. Under pressure from the federal government to raise test scores, PPS leaders turned to grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to split comprehensive high schools into autonomous schools-within-schools.
Originally conceived as “small communities,” with teachers as leaders and principals as teachers, the “small schools” movement had already gained a toehold in PPS, thanks to committed teacher-leaders like David Colton, who saw them as an opportunity to bring a private school atmosphere to the kinds of students least likely to have access to it.
There was never an intention to constrain students in narrow academic “silos,” to place artificial barriers between small schools, or to introduce more administrative bureaucracy. But this is exactly what happened at the four high schools torn asunder by the PPS interpretation of “small schools.”
Each of the three small schools at Madison were given their own “small school administrator,” at a pay grade ($91,140 – $101,092) one step above vice principal. At least one of these administrators had no classroom teaching experience. Despite an unworkable master schedule within the small schools, students were prohibited from crossing over into other academies to fill out their schedules.
The net effect is that for considerably more money, mostly due to the cost of extra administrators, students at these small schools get considerably less opportunity than they could be getting, if only PPS would make small modifications to their small schools implementation.
The obvious solution at Madison, without backing out of the small schools model entirely, is to allow students to fill out their schedules by crossing over into the other academies. It would also make sense to get rid of the three small schools administrators, and hire a vice principal. Use that money to put teachers in the classroom, and have senior teachers and counselors lead the small schools.
This is what the teachers who originated the concept wanted, but when counselor David Colton helped students fill out their schedules by crossing over into other small schools, he was placed on probation and threatened with involuntary transfer out of Madison.
Colton has the overwhelming support of his students and colleagues, as evidenced by the mass student walkout and the vote of no confidence in Madison principal Pat Thompson at the end of the school year in June.
The situation at Madison could be a watershed moment for Carole Smith. Her initial reflex was to side with administrators against the students and teachers, calling their actions “very disappointing.” Colton’s involuntary transfer is rumored to be proceeding.
But will students at Madison continue to be denied cross-over? There can be no legitimate reason for this. Even school board member Bobbie Regan, at Madison’s commencement exercises, acknowledged that students want to be able to do this.
The only reason to deny students the ability to fill out their schedules across small school lines is for Carole Smith and her administration to save face. Scapegoating David Colton for the problems at Madison, despite overwhelming support for his vision of small learning communities, not iron-clad, top-heavy small school silos, only further limits the educational opportunity of Madison’s students.
Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.