“Enrichment” in K8s: is Winterhaven the model?

What’s the current status of the K8 Action Team these days? As I recall, there was supposed to be a model K8 curriculum developed by now, but I don’t think I’ve seen it. Does anybody have an update on that?

I’ve also been looking at the information on the amount of “enrichment” — a term which I truly detest — offered at each school. I was dismayed to see that in the K8 FAQs (144KB PDF) they are using Winterhaven and MLC as examples of K8 (or K12 as the case may be) enrichment done right. I beg to differ.

Both schools rely very heavily — almost exclusively — on parent volunteerism and fundraising to provide anything beyond the three Rs. MLC has been at it for much longer and has a more elaborate system, with many more classes, including some taught by pros, but the principle is similar in both schools.

As much as I appreciate the efforts of the parents, these “interest classes” cannot be considered equivalent to a real class. For one thing, they tend to be very short term, typically 5-6 weeks. Obviously, that limits the the kinds of topics that can be tackled and the ability to explore anything in-depth. In fact, a lot of these special interest classes are, in fact, pretty fluffy in my opinion. (No criticism of the parents intended. You can only do what you can do. And this comment applies to my elective, too.)

Winterhaven does a lot of things right, don’t get me wrong. But “enrichment” isn’t one of them. The principals, staff, and parents have done, I think, a remarkable job providing these kids with what they can, and I am deeply grateful to them.

But when you compare the offerings at Winterhaven against the offerings at Sellwood, West Sylvan, or other middle schools, our kids are clearly being shortchanged. (It should be noted that doing this kind of comparison is exceedingly difficult, since there is no centralized source of information on offerings at all schools in PPS. The PK8 page includes a link to a document that lists “enrichment” in all those schools, but there are no details and no comparisons with middle schools.)

For example, my kid gets 5 “enrichment” periods a week, half of the recommended number for 6-8. Winterhaven has an accelerated math/science focus, so presumably extra time is devoted to those subjects. But I question the quality of even the few “enrichments” that the kids get.

Every middle schooler at Winterhaven gets one period of PE and one period of technology a week. The PE consists, as far as I can tell, of exercises (e.g., sit-ups) and running around the gym. His friend at West Sylvan gets a daily PE consisting of yoga, Pilates, and weight lifting, among other things.

In addition, kids in grades 6-8 can choose one among three official, year-long electives offered: Spanish, theatre, and study hall. The Spanish class (offered only in the last 2 years) is taught twice a week by a non-certified teacher hired with Run for the Arts cash. My son has never had what I would consider to be a real foreign language class. After one year of this elective — plus a year of after school Spanish that I paid for — he can barely say hello in Spanish. And he’s good at languages.

A theatre elective is also offered, but only because two teachers are doing it out of the goodness of their souls, giving up their prep time. That’s probably not sustainable. The third elective is a study hall. Hardly qualifies as an “enrichment” in my book.

Meanwhile, there’s no music at all for middle schoolers. (There is some singing offered for K-5 kids in a Run for the Arts-supported musical once a year, but no instruments, no reading music.) There are usually parent-run arts classes that the kids like, but, again, they’re short-term.

And there you have it. Not exactly an impressive array of “enrichments” if you ask me. In fairness, there is a fairly robust list of after school clubs, (most free and run by parents, some paid), but most of the students do not or cannot take advantage of them. (Winterhaven is, after all, an all-city focus option school, not a neighborhood school.)

The problem is that Winterhaven just plain doesn’t have enough FTE to provide what I would consider a full curriculum and supports. Why? Because we have only about 340+ students (not sure of this year’s latest numbers). But the reality is that we can’t have more because the building is too small; we are already overcrowded. [Some of you may recall that this prompted an ill-conceived scheme in 2006 to relocate Winterhaven to a larger building that was, unfortunately, utterly inappropriate to support the program and, oh by the way, landed on the demolition list a year later.]

I go into this detail only because I want to make sure that Winterhaven is not used as evidence that the K8 model is fully elaborated and just swell. It’s not. That doesn’t mean it can’t be, but I’d like to see some progress on that sooner rather than later. In fact, this K8 model is long overdue. For those who aren’t familiar with Winterhaven, it is now in its 13th year as a K8 program/school. Any curricular deficits, therefore, cannot be attributed to the more recent reconfiguration chaos.

More to the point, given that there were two K8 schools (Winterhaven and Sunnyside) and one K-12 school (MLC) already in existence when the decision was made to do a wholesale conversion of vast swaths of the city, it was at the time and remains a mystery to me why the District didn’t consider their experiences in planning for the reconfiguration. Now it appears that the District is simply declaring them cases of K8 done right without acknowledging that even in these “successful” schools there are some significant curricular deficits.

While I’m at, can we come up with a better word than “enrichment?” To my ear, this makes the subjects in question sound like luxuries that are, by definition, easily dispensable in hard times. The term strikes me as positively Rovian. I think we should come up with a term that implies that the subjects are not fluff, but essential to a child’s development with proven beneficial effects on both academic achievement and student retention. Any ideas?

Rita Moore has a Ph.D. in Political Science and taught at universities in the US and Europe for 18 years. She now works as an advocate for children in the child welfare system and volunteers as a mediator and facilitator. She has one child in PPS and recently ran for the zone four position on the Portland Public Schools Board of Education.