Can PPS get it right at Madison?

7:14 am

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.

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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, High Schools, Labor Relations, Madison High, Reform, School Board

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8 Responses

  1. Comment from Marian:

    I suspect Madison Cluster Area Director Bev Pruitt is involved in much of the blunder that has occurred at Madison. Does anyone have information on her? She was the cause of a lot of problems when Rose City and Gregory Heights were merging, and was virtually removed from the process by Vicki Phillips after the school community raised a big fuss about her interference. But I hear she is still the cluster head and this should worry students and teachers at Madison.

  2. Comment from David:

    Steve, Excellent synthesis of the problems at Madison. I am aware that the current master course schedules for each of the three communities have problems……when only 55% of your schedules run leaving 45% of the students without the full complement of classes needed to graduate, there is a problem. When I returned to the 2007/08 school year I was met with similar circumstances and needed to put in an additional 25 hours to make schedules work so that students had 7 classes. When I arrived I was met with only 29 schedules that worked and it was nearly the end of September before all students were properly placed in the correct classes. When Madison had 1300 students ten years ago when I started at that school, working together the counselors and the vice-principal in charge of the master course schedule were able to get a 96% run for the coming year mid-June. What I am describing is only a fraction with what is wrong with the small school model that has been evolving at Madison. No one ever built the capacity to make it work properly. I am heartsick……..David

  3. Comment from Susan:

    Bev Pruitt is area director for the Madison cluster K-8s (or K-7s, in the case of Scott and Rigler). High schools have a different area director. At a meeting at Rose City Park to discuss the merging of RCP with GH, a parent asked her what the current enrollment at Madison HS was and she answered that she didn’t know – she wasn’t the Madison HS director. No doubt she will have to become more familiar with Madison HS now that it will house Scott and Rigler’s 8th graders.

  4. Comment from Zarwen:

    Anyone know how PPS got such a warped idea of how these “small learning communities” are supposed to work? Was it just an excuse to create more high-paying administrative positions?

  5. Comment from Terry:

    Yeah, I have an idea about where the “warped idea” of how small schools –academies– are supposed to work came from:

    Bill Gates and his $40 billion dollar foundation. And of course his employee-to-be, Vicki Phillips.

    By the way, Steve, great post. I especially appreciate your reference to the role poverty plays in “school success”.

  6. Comment from Zarwen:

    Was the Gates Grant actually that specific? I had understood that the grantee schools were supposed to form work groups to figure out how it would be done. I think VP would have borne the greater responsibility for the mess: we all know now what her idea of a “work group” is.

  7. Comment from mary:

    Bev Pruitt was area coordinator for the Madison cluster and Lincoln cluster. She is now are coordinator for the Grant and Lincoln cluster. I don’t know the name of the Madison cluster director.

    I would like to see Madison’s small learning communities function similarly to the career pathways that are in place at other schools. Small communities or pathways that facilitate closer relationships between people and curriculum components would be fine. Currently my understanding is that students can’t take classes they need and/or want due to the “silos” approach. I know several parents in the Madison cluster who were feeling positive about Madison precisely because it has NOT been split into 3 autonomous small schools. As a parent with an elementary aged child in the Madison cluster I am cautiously optimistic about Madison. There is some movement among families toward wanting to support Madison and advocate for our neighborhood school instead of hoping for the transfer out. I hope a middle ground approach is found based on the educational needs of the students.

  8. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    The encouraging thing about Madison is that PPS can make small changes that actually save money and, at the same time, give students considerably more choice and opportunity.

    Whether they make these changes is yet to be seen, and will be the first real litmus test of Carole Smith’s intentions.

    Will she do what’s right for the students, or will she continue to side with administrators who have critical elements of the small schools model flat-out wrong?