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.