On the right track with Carole Smith

3:16 pm

Lest the casual reader believe PPS Equity is solely focused on the things Portland Public Schools is doing wrong (we’ve been described as “scathing” by Sarah Mirk at the Merc), we should pause and take note of the things that are on the right track.

In Carole Smith’s September 5 speech (58KB PDF) to the City Club of Portland (reviewed by Peter Campbell here and by Terry Olson on his blog), she highlighted what I see as a significant policy shift from her predescessor. In her prepared remarks, she says

…our high school campuses with the lowest enrollment — the ones usually suggested for closure — each have at least 1,400 high school age students living in their neighborhoods. As a city, we have a choice: We can declare defeat, shut down those campuses and tell 1,400 students they have to take a long bus ride every day to a high school in a more affluent part of town — sacrificing their ability to participate in athletics, after-school programs at those schools that meet families’ needs and are attractive to students.

I’m not ready to give up on those schools and on those neighborhoods.

Hey, I could have written this! In fact, I have, many times.

(The next step is to figure out how to pay for it. I’ve long suggested balancing enrollment through a combination of equalizing opportunities across the district and a neighborhood-based enrollment policy. Carole Smith and her staff haven’t made that next step yet, but unless they have a 50% increase in funding or want to cut programming in wealthier neighborhoods, balancing enrollment is the only way we’re going to get there.)

Finally, we’re hearing talk of “equity of access,” which sounds pretty darned close to the “equity of opportunity” I’ve been calling for.

The significant question about “access” is whether we will continue to have a two-tiered secondary school system — comprehensive middle and high schools for the wealthier half of the city and K8s and “small schools” high schools for the rest — or whether we’re going to work toward eliminating the ability to know the wealth of a neighborhood by the type of school you find there.

Smith is taking the first steps on the path to what I call equity; to that end, her staff, “by the end of this school year, … will define the core educational program to be offered at each of our high school campuses, as well as a plan to fund it within existing resources.”

You have to assume this will be a pretty low bar, as it has been with K8s. (The minimum 6-8 curriculum being defined for the K8 transition is significantly less than what was already available at every middle school in Portland before the K8 conversion.) But we’ve got to guarantee that students are at least able to graduate with the classes available, something that isn’t necessarily possible at some of Portland’s poorest high schools, a problem aggravated by the district’s rigid implementation of the “small schools” model at Madison High School, for example.

Nevertheless, these implementation details, along with a continued focus on assessment, do not detract from the fact that Carole Smith is on the right track in significant, broad stroke ways.

Talking about high schools before talking about facilities. Talking about “equity of access”. Talking about where students live (as opposed to where they’ve transferred to) as a critical element in the design of the high school system.

It’s easy to point to missed opportunities to take immediate action and show a real commitment to equity of opportunity: Madison High, K8s, Libraries, etc. But it seems to me the winds have shifted, and if we actually put some of Carole Smith’s words into bold action, we’re going to see a turn-around from the laissez-faire, two-tiered, self-segregated “system” of education we currently have.

Then it just becomes a question of urgency. Every year we wait, we lose another class of students.

It wouldn’t hurt if the school board put a little more wind at Carole Smith’s back in this regard.

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

filed under: Assessment, Equity, Facilities, High Schools, K-8 Transistion, Libraries, Madison High, Segregation, Transfer Policy

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7 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    That’s the question. Can the school board step up and work with Carole Smith, or will they fall back on their upper middle class supporters who put them there to help guard against just the things we have talked about on this blog by taking a what me worry approach which favors the status quo? I vote for the later. Sorry to say.

  2. Comment from Oh me...:

    Regarding the discussion over what to do with high schools, there seems to be a two step solution. First, take federal money out of the high schools. This would take them out of the NCLB police state. Then end the open transfer policy. You go the to school where you live!
    I don’t see how this would upset the upper-middle class parents. They still have Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln, Wilson. If there are people in the other clusters with tons of money who can’t stand their public school, they can find a private one. Or move to Lake Oswego.

    If all freshmen in the this city had to attend their neighborhood schools, the ones that are currently most segregated would “even out” in a way. When you look at our neighborhoods in outer SE and North Portland, you find that there is a pretty good racial and economic balance: about 50% poverty, about 50% minority. If neighborhood students could no longer transfer, Madison, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Marshall would have over 1200 students again, and could offer a wealth of classes/electives/AP…something that few parents could complain about. Granted, some schools would remain mostly white and economically advantaged, but that reflects property values and housing across the city. But the “upper middle class supporters” would see little change in their child’s educational opportunities. So what is the problem? Carol Smith, be brave. School board, defend equity. Give all students in this city a chance for the equal education they are guaranteed under our constitution. End self-segregation. Stop the transfer system.

  3. Comment from jalex:

    Franklin will be the test case for Carole Smith’s policy changes: it is still a comprehensive high school, but is the most ethnically mixed and most working-class compared to the other “large population” comprehensive high schools (Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, Lincoln), and therefore the most vulnerable to collapse. As of now it is losing most of its middle class kids to Cleveland and Grant in droves (population now 1050 or so, down from 1550 4 years ago). It appears to still be a viable school only because of transfers from Madison and Marshall.

    If PPS cannot institute policies that keep its one remaining non-affluent comprehensive high school stocked with neighborhood kids, what hope is their for schools such as Jefferson, Marshall, and Madison?

    As it stands right now, Mt Tabor middle school, the main feeder into Franklin, has probably 2/3 of its kids going to Cleveland, Grant, and to a lesser extent Lincoln. What policies can Carole Smith institute that will keep these neighborhood kids in their neighborhood high school, Franklin?

  4. Comment from mary:

    Regarding Madison it is no longer on the NCLB list and priority transfers out are a thing of the past. Madison will not be splitting into three separate schools as Marshall and Jefferson have.

  5. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Mary, I’m confused about Madison. A staff member there tells me students are still not able to fill out their schedules by crossing over academy lines (it’s been split into three academies for a couple years now). This was the flash point in the David Colton imbroglio.

    I’ve also heard they’ve sacrificed one year of the Gates grant, since they’re not doing small schools in the way Gates wants.

    Like I said, I’m pretty confused. If Madison is to return to a single, comprehensive high school, when is this to be?

  6. Comment from jalex:

    As we are talking more about positives in this particular article, it would be good to list the success stories (maybe in the last 10 years) of non-affluent middle schools and high schools being pulled back from the brink; in other words not allowed to fail.

    The thought struck me, a pessimistic one, that every middle school or high school in PPS that started to struggle, continued to struggle, has essentially been closed is or is at the brink of total collapse right now.

    Where are the success stories, and what went right at these schools, communities?

  7. Comment from Marian:

    Madison’s PPS website states, “In Spring 2007, the Portland School Board made a decision to eliminate Title IA funding from the Madison Campus as a part of a reallocation of
    district Title IA funds. As a result of this decision, Madison High School will not be held accountable to Federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sanctions including priority transfer status for the 2008-2009 academic year.”

    The syllabi they have posted for 2008-09 indicates they are still separated into 3 separate small schools.