Sonja Henning takes the fifth?

In a must-read story in today’s Willamette Week discussing the Portland Public Schools board of education resolution in opposition to Bill Sizemore’s Measure 60 (merit pay for teachers), Beth Slovic writes that Measure 60 supporter Sonja Henning, who cast the lone vote in opposition to the resolution, didn’t return several phone calls.

A reliable source has filled us in on the rest of the story: Henning did eventually respond, but not to comment on the story. Henning’s response to legitimate requests for comment on her public policy position calls into question her suitability to serve in public office.

After several calls to her office and home seeking comment on her dissenting vote went unreturned, Slovic attempted to contact her in person at her home. She left a note on her door requesting a call back.

Henning reportedly responded with a voice message accusing the reporter of “crossing the line” and ultimately admonishing her not to attempt any further contact for any reason.

This message was followed by a call from PPS communications boss Robb Cowie, who reportedly reiterated Henning’s message, and also said all future contact with Henning must go through his office. Furthermore, Cowie is reported to have said, Slovic is not to approach Henning at public school board meetings.

Think about that.

Word is that Henning is also not returning calls to the Portland Tribune. (Reporters at The Oregonian did not immediately return e-mails requesting comment on Henning’s refusal to return calls requesting comment. Wheels within wheels!)

It is not clear whether Cowie’s reported decree will affect other reporters, or if singles out Slovic, a reporter who has covered PPS policy and politics more closely than any other reporter currently on the beat.

It is also unclear whether this is intended to apply to other board members, who have made themselves available to the public and the press in varying degrees (new board director Martín González is already becoming notorious for not returning calls and e-mails), or just to Henning.

Cowie was not immediately available for comment.

Given how rare dissent on the current school board is, it’s disappointing that it should come in favor of a poorly designed assault on teachers which would result in lower pay at schools serving poor and minority students (who statistically score worse on tests, which would lead to lower pay for their teachers). Coupled with the PPS teacher transfer policy, Measure 60 would surely aggravate the existing dramatic inequity in teacher experience between poor and rich schools.

The school board took the right position on this measure, and Henning’s dissent borders on bizarre. It’s certainly in the public interest to learn more.

And that’s what’s even more disappointing, even disturbing: that an elected public official would attempt to place herself and her policy positions above public scrutiny.

A reporter’s job is to act as a proxy for the public, and the public has a right to know how and why public policy is made. Henning could have simply returned the first call and offered a brief explanation. Or she could have simply said “no comment.” But to treat a reporter — and the general public she represents — with such contempt is beyond the pale.

If Sonja Henning wants to put herself off-limits to the public at public meetings, it’s time for her to retire from public life. She’s already announced she won’t seek a second term. If she’s so uncomfortable in the public eye, she should take the easy way out and resign now.

Update, October 30, 8:53 pm: Robb Cowie, while declining to comment on private conversations between him and individual reporters, sent me this comment via e-mail:

…[S]chool board meetings are public meetings and any reporter can attend. Reporters or members of the public are free to approach school board members and ask questions (school board members are also free to decline to answer those questions, if they choose). Portland Public Schools has not placed any restrictions on any journalist’s access to school board meetings.

Either my source misunderstood Cowie (or I misunderstood my source), or PPS is backing off from an untenable position. In either case, it is now clear that Beth Slovic is, in fact, free to approach Sonja Henning at school board meetings.

Next public board meeting: This Saturday, November 1, 8 a.m. at McMenamin’s Kennedy School, in the Agnes Kennedy White Library.

Update, October 31, 10:30 a.m.: Beth Slovic clarifies that Cowie relayed a request from Sonja Henning that Slovic not approach her at board meetings. She also said that he told her this does not apply to other journalists, just her. In other words, this was not an edict from the district. (Since the district’s chief spokesman was the one delivering the message, one can see how this may have been perceived as something more than an individual board member’s request.)

It is unfortunate that the district’s communications office was put in the awkward position of relaying Henning’s legally unenforceable (without a restraining order) request to Slovic.

The focus of this story remains on Henning. I regret if anyone thought I was trying to portray Robb Cowie or the PPS communications office as the bad guys.

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

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Charter school hearing

The Emerald Charter School will receive its first hearing at the school board’s charter school committee on Halloween (scary stuff, kids!).

There will be a whopping ten minutes available for public testimony, scheduled during the first 30 minutes. The meeting is Friday, October 31, 9-11 a.m. in the Willamette Conference Room at BESC, 501 N. Dixon St.

As usual, letters and e-mail to the board are appropriate in lieu of public testimony.

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

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Size matters

How student transfers, “small schools,” and K8s steal opportunity from Portland’s least wealthy students, and how we can make it right

When speaking with district leaders about the glaring and shameful opportunity gap between the two halves of Portland Public Schools, it doesn’t take long before they start wringing their hands about enrollment.

“If only we could get enrollment up at Jefferson (or Madison, Marshall or Roosevelt),” they’ll tell you, “we could increase the offerings there.”

Or, as PPS K8 project manager Sara Allan put it in a recent comment on Rita Moore’s blog post about K8 “enrichment”: “All of our schools that are small … face a massive struggle to provide a robust program with our current resources.”

Not to pick on Sarah, but this attitude disclaims responsibility for the problem. After all, the “smallness” of schools in the PPS “red zone”* is by design, the direct result of three specific policies that are under total control of PPS policy makers:

  1. the break-up of comprehensive high schools into autonomous “small schools”
  2. the transition from comprehensive middle schools to K8s, and
  3. open transfer enrollment.

Smallness is not a problem in and of itself, but it is crippled by a school funding formula in which funding follows students, and there is little or no allowance for the type of school a student is attending (e.g. small vs. comprehensive or K8 vs. 6-8).

So when you’re dealing with a handicap you’ve created by design — smallness — it’s a little disingenuous to complain about its constraints. Instead, we need to eliminate the constraints — i.e. adjust the school funding formula — or redesign the handicap.

Adjusting the school funding formula to account for smallness would be ideal, if we had the funding to do it. Since we don’t, this would mean robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is, we would have to reduce funding at other schools to pay for smallness brought on by out-transfers, the K8 transition, or the small schools high school model. This obviously hasn’t happened, and it would be political suicide to suggest we start.

So barring a new source of funding to reduce the constraints of smallness, we need to redesign smallness.

The easiest case is the “small schools” design for high schools. Where students have been constrained to one of three “academies,” with varying degrees of autonomy, we simply allow students to cross-register for classes in other academies. Instead of academies, call them learning communities. Instantly, students at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt have three times the curriculum to choose from. The best concepts of “small schools” — teachers as leaders and a communities of learning — are preserved.

For K8s, the problem is simply that we can never offer as much curriculum with 50-150 students in what is essentially an elementary school facility as we can offer at a middle school with 400-600 students. So we offer a choice: every middle grade student can choose between a comprehensive middle school or continuing in their neighborhood K8. Reopen (or rebuild) closed middle schools in the Jefferson and Madison clusters, and bolster those in the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters. Families in every cluster then have the choice between a richer curriculum of a middle school or the closer attention their children may receive with a smaller cohort in a K8. We all like choice, right?

Which brings us to the stickiest wicket of the smallness problem: open transfer enrollment, which conspires with K8s and “small schools” to drain nearly 6,000 students from the red zone annually (that’s 27% of students living in the red zone and 12% of all PPS students). We’re well-acquainted with the death spiral of out-transfers, program cuts, more out-transfers, and still more program cuts. It has reached the point that it doesn’t even matter why people first started leaving a school like Jefferson.

If you look at Jefferson now, compared to Grant, for example, It’s shocking what you see. Not counting dance classes, Jefferson offers 38 classes. Grant offers 152.

What kind of “choice” is that? (Disclaimer: both the Grant and Jefferson syllabi listings may be missing courses if teachers have not yet submitted their syllabi.)

Obviously, given funding constraints, we can’t afford to have a school with 600 students offer the same number of classes as one with 1,600, as district leaders will readily point out. What they’re not fond of talking about is the budget-neutral way of offering equity of opportunity in our high schools: balance enrollment.

All of our nine neighborhood high schools have enrollment area populations of 1,400-1,600. Jefferson and Marshall, two of our smallest high schools by enrollment, are the two largest attendance areas by residence, each with more than 1,600 PPS high school students.

With a four-year phase-in (keeping in mind that transfers into Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland have basically been shut-down for a couple years anyway), you start by making core freshman offerings the same at every neighborhood high school. Incoming freshman are assigned to their neighborhood school, and they don’t have to worry about it being a gutted shell. (Transfers for special focus options will still be available as they are now.) The following year, we add sophomore classes, and so on, and in four years every neighborhood high school has equity in core sequences of math, science, language arts, social studies, world languages and music, paid for without additional funding and without cutting significant programs at schools that are currently doing well.

Once we have this balance in place, both in terms of offerings and enrollment, we can talk about allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers again, but only as we can afford them. In other words, we will no longer allow a neighborhood program to be damaged by out-transfers.

It’s time for Portland Public Schools to stop blaming its opportunity gap on the smallness it has designed — by way of “small schools,” K8s, and open transfer enrollment — and it’s time for policy makers to stop transferring the costs of smallness to our poorest students in terms of dramatically unequal opportunities.



*I define the red zone as clusters with significant net enrollment losses due to student transfers: Jefferson (net loss of 1,949 students), Madison (1,067 students), Marshall (1,441 students) and Roosevelt (1,296 students). (2007-08 enrollment figures.) This represents, by conservative estimate, an annual loss of $34 million in state and local educational investment to the least-wealthy neighborhoods in Portland. “Small schools” were implemented exclusively in these four clusters, and the K8 transition, though district-wide, has disproportionately impacted the red zone. There are only two middle schools remaining in the red zone, one in the Roosevelt cluster and one in the Marshall cluster. By contrast, the Cleveland and Wilson clusters each have two middle schools; Franklin, Grant and Lincoln each have one.

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

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Jefferson YMA: its demise fortold?

PPS Equity has learned that staff in the Portland Public Schools transfer and enrollment office told the parents of at least one incoming 9th grader at the Jefferson Young Men’s Academy that the beleaguered academy would be closing.

“It’s not going to exist,” the family was told approximately two weeks before the start of the school year. It was strongly suggested that they should withdraw and go to one of the other schools where they’d been accepted.

The family, feeling like they had no choice, settled on their neighborhood high school, which the district employee told them “gets just as bad a rap as Jefferson,” so why not go there.

This could certainly explain why there were no incoming sixth graders at the Young Men’s Academy this year, if families were told to go elsewhere.

Were other incoming students told by transfer and enrollment to go elsewhere? If the district is planning to close the Young Men’s Academy, what does this say about their commitment to the 33 students who remain there? Were they also told their school would cease to exist? And what does this mean for the future of the Young Women’s Academy?

If we are giving up on the Young Men’s Academy, it is time to come clean for the good of the students. Slow death by strangulation can’t possibly be in anybody’s best interest.

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

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TAG screening for Title 1 schools

Just a quick update.  I attended a TAG information meeting tonight where the TAG coordinators announced that all 2nd graders in Title 1 schools will be screened this year for TAG  through  “culturally fair, non-verbal” assessments.  Kids who appear to be potential TAG candidates will then go through a more formal assessment process.  Next year, all 2nd graders District-wide will be screened.  I hadn’t heard this before and I know nothing about the nature of the screening tool they will be using, but it seems to me that this is a positive development that deserves some good press. 

This new initiative is in addition to the existing process by which parents and teachers can nominate students for testing. 

 It’s a small step, no doubt a response to the state finding that PPS was not in compliance with state TAG standards, and certainly won’t redress the longstanding disparity in TAG identification, but I’m very pleased to see PPS taking to heart some of the critiques of the program. 

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.

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Company guy

Talk about playing both sides for the middle.

The newest member of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education is already demonstrating keen political instincts. Even as he speaks of representing minority communities, he’s falling in line with the group think of the board.

“I’m not going to go there and just be an opposition candidate,” says Martín González in a Portland Tribune story by Christian Gaston.

“I think people are looking for magical solutions and I like Kool-Aid, but I don’t think that’s how it works.”

I think González, who has not responded to PPS Equity e-mail challenging him to take bold positions on critical issues, may be talking about us.

Personally, I can’t stand Kool-Aid. And I don’t think having comprehensive secondary schools in our least wealthy neighborhoods and a neighborhood-based enrollment policy is asking for magic. I think it would be equitable, balanced, sustainable public education and investment policy.

If González thinks that’s asking for magic, I think he’s being incredibly cynical.

He falls right in line with the company dogma about transfer and enrollment policy.

González said that the district’s transfer policy isn’t responsible for segregating students: Instead, parents and students are separating themselves.

“The reality is, I think, our society is still segregated,” González said.

Yes, society is segregated, and yes, people do self-segregate. I’ve written about that quite a bit, in fact.

But this doesn’t excuse the district’s policy that encourages more of it. The fact remains that our schools have become dramatically more segregated, both in terms of ethnicity and economics, than the neighborhoods they serve.

This policy González is defending, coupled with the school funding formula, divests over $40 million a year from our least wealthy, least white neighborhoods.

I can understand the perspective of wanting to keep options for poor and minority students, who are disproportionately assigned to schools that the district has not just neglected, but has actively gutted and broken into small schools with dramatically reduced opportunity.

This is why I’ve proposed a transfer policy — predicated on first providing comprehensive secondary schools in every cluster — that allows students to transfer freely, so long as their transfer doesn’t aggravate socio-economic segregation (much like the Black United Front’s 1980 desegregation plan, but keyed on economics instead of race).

This policy would allow disadvantaged students to choose from virtually any school, but keep most students in their neighborhood schools. It would balance our public investment in proportion to where students live, bring equity of opportunity to all students, and it would tend to desegregate schools in all neighborhoods. And best of all, it would cost taxpayers less than the current model with all its built-in inequities.

This isn’t magic, Mr. González, this is sound public policy. If we could do it in 1980, we can do it in 2008.

Platitudes about bringing a new voice to the table and tracking individual student achievement don’t mean much when the policies of Portland Public Schools continue to drain enrollment and public investment from our poorest neighborhoods and deprive the students there of basic opportunity available to students living in the wealthier, whiter parts of Portland.

It’s looking like the school board and their patrons got exactly what they were looking for. A minority male, which changes the balance of the board from 85% female and 71% white to 71% female and 57% white, making the board look more like the 55% white school district they lead.

But best of all, the powers-that-be manage to keep their own white asses covered with a seemingly representative board defending policies which disproportionately hurt poor and minority neighborhoods and students to the benefit of wealthier, whiter ones.

You’ve got to hand it to them; they know exactly what they’re doing. And it sounds an awful lot like class war to me.

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

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