Knowles on K8s

10:38 pm

This is Pam Knowles’ contribution to the K8 conversation that we started with Scott Bailey last month. Thank you Pam for offering your take on the issue.

Thanks for contacting me and providing the opportunity to join the discussion about K-8 and middle schools. I attended the CPPS Conference and workshop on K-8s and listened carefully to the comments and concerns of parents whose children are currently in K-8 schools. We had a great discussion about the hasty transition to K-8s for certain schools in PPS. It would have been helpful to have someone there from the district who was intimately involved in the transition to provide an update on the identification of issues and what solutions are being proposed to solve the problems our new K-8s face.

Your frustration and the frustration of parents about the transition is clear from your questions and the responses on the PPS Equity blog. I want to respond to your questions by covering the benefits of the K-8 model, what happened in Portland Public Schools that is different from other cities that experienced successful transitions and what our next steps need to be to fix these problems.

As to why make the change from middle schools to K-8, I believe the District, in its continuing struggle to narrow the achievement gap, turned to the national research on K-8 as a potential solution. The research shows that in K-8s that have been implemented successfully, academic achievement rises. Why?

  • Kids continue to build on established relationships with teachers and other adults (as with looping which has also been shown to increase achievement).
  • Parents continue to be more involved in the schools because they are already involved and do not have to reestablish themselves (sounds like the same reason we use for kids).
  • Behavior is more positive. Kids do not have to establish a new identity, but rather can take the role of mentor and protector of younger students
  • There is opportunity for enhanced teacher coordination and articulation between and among grades
  • There is more personal accountability for teachers as they are not passing a student along to another school.

As a parent, a business leader and board member I want students to be successful. I want to see a decrease in the achievement gap and an increase in our graduation rates. I want all children to have the opportunity for success. So what happened in Portland? Why haven’t all our children and our schools experienced success under this model?

First and foremost, implementation began without thorough planning and buy-in by all stakeholders. Parents, teachers, students and community members all should have been a larger part of the decision-making process.

The district was dealing with several issues at the same time that impacted the transition, including the need to close schools, transfer issues, changing enrollment patterns and magnet/special option schools. Many parents, teachers and principals were skeptical and this skepticism increased as the implementation was rushed. Without strong, effective leadership and good, committed teachers the transition cannot succeed district-wide.

Where do we go from here? We do need an assessment of our K-8s to determine which ones are working and why, and which ones are failing and why. This needs to be completed immediately. We cannot delay. We also cannot assume that if we went back to the K-5, middle school model that students would be more successful. Clearly, there were significant problems with that model as well. And, as we all know there are many issues that effect student achievement and they are all entwined. Many of these issues have been discussed on the PPS Equity blog, including transfer policies that weaken neighborhood schools, teacher evaluation and support, kindergarten, parent involvement, and poverty.

My initial belief, without the benefit of an assessment, is that K-8s that were developed at small elementary schools are struggling because they cannot offer the variety of programs/electives that larger K-8s can. In effect, they are still elementary schools that have simply stretched to include 6-8. In some cases this was achieved by adding portables to the school, which fails to provide opportunities to mix the older students with younger students. The integration of all grades is key component and rationale behind the K-8 transition. As a result they do not have the experiences that lead to better behaviors and increased achievement.

The middle schools that expanded to include elementary students are having more success, but still have a long way to go. In both cases, leadership through collaboration between the principal, the teachers and parents as a team will help with the transition and is the most important factor in achieving success.

I would be interested in hearing more from your readers on ideas for how we decrease the achievement gap and increase graduation rates. Ideas I have been considering include:

  • Expanding programs that help children start school ready to learn.
  • Partnering with the county and the city to stretch scarce dollars that support families, young children and at-risk youth in after school and summer enrichment programs
  • Expanding partnerships with community organizations that provide mentors and programs to increase performance.
  • Involving the business community to engage youth through job shadows, internships and employment, to expand their vision of the opportunities that come when they stay in school.

I have extensive experience developing solutions to problems through collaboration and implementing those solutions. I think it is time we move beyond discussing problems. It is time to pull all stakeholders together and develop and implement system-wide solutions. I will pull together teachers, parents, the administration, and community members to turn the challenges faced by the district into opportunities to improve and make the real, quality changes our children deserve.

Thanks again for the opportunity to comment. I look forward to a continuing dialogue on these important issues.

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Pam Knowles was elected to the Portland Public Schools board of education in 2009.

filed under: Elections, K-8 Transistion, School Board

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9 Responses

  1. Comment from Ken:

    What data do you have that suggests K-8s have the advantages you listed in the first group of bullet points?

    If the K-8 model is so beneficial, why aren’t there K-8s on the West side?

    Given you admit the transition to K-8 schools was ill-planned, please do not say certain K-8 schools are “failing.” These “failing” schools deserve little blame for their “failure.” In fact, I’d dare say that some of the philanthropic community deserves considerable blame. Combine the K-8 model with PPS’s transfer policy and you wind up with under-enrolled (and, hence, underfunded) schools.

    What, exactly, is your experience working with the philanthropic community?

    Off to work in a K-8 school,
    -Ken Libby

  2. Comment from sheila warren:

    HI PAM I met you at the CPPS Conference. I have been involved in the Jefferson cluster for a long time. It seems that every major change PPS comes up with falls on Jefferson Cluster Schools (School closure, k-8, newest principals and teachers). Principals are often new and not from Portland. Teachers and Principals don’t live in Portland area and their children aren’t in the PPS school district and often enough in private school. Some live in Vancouver Washington and children go to that school district.

    Most principals and teachers work hard and care about their school children, but at the end of the day they go home out of our communities. They support their own children in other districts or private schools. I am active in my school. I have sat with our data team and we found some scores are not as high as they should be. One of the teacher’s children go to the school said if she would have known that she would not have enrolled her children. This is a teacher that teaches in that school! Pam what do you think of this statement. Are you worried as a parent and a potential board member about this statement? Your bullet points don’t give me enough to understand what your issues are. Can you tell me about Parent Involvement and why that is so important? Tell me what you are compassionate about?

  3. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Basing the k-8 transition on very suspect educational research was the first big mistake. That was compounded by thinking that improving education rests on improving scores on standardized tests which measure the “achievement gap” instead of improving the education itself. As long as PPS continues to emphasize testing, testing, testing, we will not address the dropout rate in a realistic manner within the school system. It is odd to hear you proffer such views in that you are such a supporter of the arts. Or are the arts just for the upper and middle income schools?

    I am also confused by you saying that it is time to stop discussions, but you look forward to continued dialogue.

    On the video on your website you say, “I look forward to any thoughts or concerns you might have about our schools.” Yet when I asked if we could sit down and talk you told me you weren’t interested.

    One of the lessons I have learned over 35 years paying careful attention to PPS is that solutions for schools in lower income neighborhoods haven’t come from the upper and middle income neighborhood activists. Collaboration among these people has gotten us where we are — a two tiered educational system, where the solutions brought forth from these collaborations, including our collaborative school board, have stopped at the boundaries of Lincoln, Grant, Wilson, and Cleveland. They have also brought forth the decimation of Benson, which incidentally used to have a one and a half percent dropout rate and was the major avenue for students to move up out of poverty in the city of Portland.

    So there is a disconnect — the same old one I imagine. I would love to hear how you plan to really address the real “challenges faced by the distict” within the district itself, where, incidentally, all the education take place.

  4. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’m most curious about the issue Ken brought up… are the advantages of K8s only valid for poor and minority kids?

    Personally, I can see advantages and disadvantages to both K8s and middle schools, and I think all students in the district should have equal access.

    That is, we should either have all K8s, all middle schools, or choices in either, equally distributed in the district.

    (Currently, about half the district’s sixth-eighth graders are assigned to middle schools and half to K8s, with the former being predominately white and middle class and the latter being disproportionately poor and minority.)

  5. Comment from Susan:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this forum. I believe that an assessment of how the K-8s are faring has been ongoing by the K-8 Action Team. The fact that the public hasn’t really heard anything from the team in almost a year and the team’s information has been pulled from the PPS website indicates to me that the K-8 reorg is not going well. Beyond the K-8 model being squeezed into buildings without age-appropriate gyms, tech/science labs, libraries, playgrounds and furniture, there are issues of equity between the K-8 model being offered by PPS and it’s traditional and special focus elementary and middle schools. Since you’re familiar with daVinci, can you imagine daVinci reorganizing from a successful middle school of 450 students to a K-8 with nearly 600? Imagine the art teacher now being asked to teach 600 children each year. No matter how often the art teacher sees the students (once a week annually or more frequently for one trimester/quarter), the art teacher now needs to have curriculum for six new grade levels (K-5). The teacher will need to know how to interact appropriately and productively with six new grade levels. With more students/grade levels to teach, the art teacher will have to scale back the middle school curriculum because there just isn’t the same amount of time to teach the middle school students. And, after this year, the art teacher will be recreating the school’s art curriculum without the support of the district’s art TOSA.

    I’m not sure more assessment is needed — the principals, teachers and parents know what is working and what isn’t. What we need is a K-8 educational model – a vision of what exactly is required and how it will be funded. But the district has moved on to the high school reorg.

  6. Comment from Marian:


    Thank you for speaking on this issue. I would like to hear some clarifications from you on the following statements you made:

    “The district was dealing with several issues at the same time that impacted the transition, including the need to close schools….”

    Do you think there was a need to close schools? Why?

    “Clearly, there were significant problems with that model (middle school) as well.”

    Please specify the problems and please give specific examples.

    “The middle schools that expanded to include elementary students are having more success, but still have a long way to go.”

    Please explain by using an example.

    Pam, as a board member, how can you help toward providing stable and adequate funding for PPS? Would you be willing to work to support higher taxes, including such for businesses?

    Thank you.

  7. Comment from Collen:

    My neighborhood school has transitioned to k-8. The principal states that the middle school is just “not working” and most students transfer out after 5th grade. In addition to that, the budget cuts, actually took away FTE’s from the middle school. How is a middle school suppose to grow, when they are already making cuts to the program?

    The education philosophy needs to change, also! I am not one to support a specific “philosophy” in a public school, but I think a Montessori philosophy would and could work in our public schools! Look at the foundation. Mixed age classrooms, hands on learning, slow learners can learn at their own pace, fast learners can go beyond and be challenged, and average learners are somewhere in the middle. Everyone wins.
    I am sure PPS will never go down this road, but one can dream, right?
    just my 2 cents.

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Collen, nice to see you here. The deal about middle schools is that you can have music, art, P.E., drama, etc. for very little cost since the students have to be in some class. Doesn’t cost much more to be in a music class with a music teacher than in any other class. And they have to be somewhere. Doesn’t work that way in a k-8 necessarily. I advocated for a long time that they needed to fix the disciplinary structure of the middle schools so they were much more attractive to parents. Also, we needed athletics and other activities for kids after school which were tied to the school. Lots of school districts understand the importance of this for kids this age. PPS doesn’t really get it. I had hoped they would figure it out. Maybe get some help from Nike or Adidas or Intel to put those programs in the schools. Never got to be a high priority since the parents of kids in more well to do neighborhoods bought this stuff for their kids. Funny, they know how important it is, but the powers that be aren’t the least bit interested in making sure kids in low income neighborhoods get the same deal.

  9. Comment from mary:

    Here are some other things that have been shown to boost acheivement: recess, PE, music, participation in athletics, engagement in the arts, and extracurricular activities. Bring ‘em on please.