K-8s from a teacher’s perspective

Everyone’s a critic, it’s true. It is easy to point fingers, but try to fix something? This takes more effort than most people can muster.

I have been a witness, for the last four years, to Portland Public Schools’ fiasco known as K-8 schools. I have tried to shed light on the problems created by this policy and had hoped to, as they say, be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The district has a history of not accepting blame when it is due, continuing with programs proven not to work, and trying to spin it all in a positive light. As PPS entrenches itself deeper into this hole it has dug itself, I cannot help but throw in my two cents, both as a K-8 teacher in PPS, and as a parent to two children in a K-8 school.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with K-8s is that the facilities housing them are woefully inadequate. My school this year, as of June 12, is losing its staff room to a classroom and the nurse will be in the hall. We were promised a brand new computer lab, but alas will have to settle for a mobile cart of computers to be wheeled from classroom to classroom. There is no science lab, our library is extremely small, and the counselor has to share a room with several other programs. Already, there is a portable on the playground. It is true that some schools have enough space, but many do not.

Indeed, some schools have scaled back their K-8 plans due to space constrictions. However, this policy is not applied consistently. Several times, in other K-8s I have taught, facilities people have gone on walk-throughs to plan for the upcoming years. Never have I seen staff asked for input. Indeed, I have seen several staff members give input, only to have it ignored. This resulted in configurations that then had to be changed once the school year started.

Even if facilities for K-8s were sufficient, the content taught and the approach to this content is not at all up to the standards of most middle schools. Many middle schools in K-8s are taught using a self-contained model. This means that one teacher teaches almost all subject matter. The problem with this is that the higher the grade level, the more complex the subjects become, and most teachers, no matter how gifted they are, cannot adequately teach every subject.

Most middle school teachers teach one or two subjects. They are experts in those subjects. As a parent, I want my children to learn from experts. Additionally, electives are taught, usually, by those same teachers. So, on top of teaching 4-5 academic subjects, middle school teachers in K-8s are required to teach an additional elective. Hence, lots of knitting, badminton, and study halls are offered. No music, no home economics or languages, as these would require actually hiring additional teachers.

Lastly, in addition to lacking satisfactory facilities and academic support, K-8s have no one steering the boat, so to speak. Most administrators are trained in elementary protocols and procedures, not middle school models. I have called several people in the district who were supposed to be “in charge” or helping those in charge, and have gotten nowhere.

The last phone call I made, on June 12, was to a facilities person. She got irritated with me asking “Why do we not have adequate room for our programs?” She then started asking me what my solutions were. I offered two or three, and she said each one had already been considered and thrown out. But it left me wondering. If you really wanted my opinion, as a teacher in a K-8, why didn’t you ask me four years ago?

Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.

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High school design preserves schools, limits transfers, seeks equity

Carole Smith
Carole Smith presents her high school plan on the steps of Benson High

In her boldest policy proposal since taking the reigns of Portland Public Schools, Carole Smith has endorsed a high school system design that would guarantee every student a spot in a truly comprehensive high school, eliminate the ability to transfer from one neighborhood school to another, and preserve all existing high school campuses as either comprehensive neighborhood schools or magnets.

This model, described by Smith at a press conference on the steps of Benson High School this morning as “simple, elegant, equitable — and a lot of work,” builds on the success of our existing comprehensive high schools, but will likely preserve small schools as magnet options.

Smith acknowledged the difficulty of gaining community support for such sweeping changes. “I know that many Portlanders — justifiably — don’t really trust the school district to make significant changes. They’ve seen faulty implementation and have felt burned by rushed decision-making — whether your experience is with Jefferson High School or the K-8 reconfigurations,” she said.

Documents describing the design in fuller detail were posted on the PPS Web site this morning. More details will be presented in September.

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

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High school design press conference

Superintendent Carole Smith will announce her recommendation for the high school system redesign tomorrow, 10:30 am on the steps of Benson High School. Advance reports indicate the chosen design will be most similar to the “strong neighborhood schools” model (which was the strongest of the three proposed models), with school choice limited to district-wide magnet schools, charters, and alternative schools.

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

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Parent Union meeting

The PPS Parent Union is meeting Wednesday, June 24 from 6-8p.m., at 101 SW Main, Alaska Room (seventh floor).

From the PPS Parent Union Facebook page:

The work starts. This meeting will concentrate on a strategic plan (mission, vision, goals, objectives, intiatives, measures and targets).

We will be forming a parent advisory committee
Parent Academy committee ( Lakeitha Elliot Manager)
Student Union committee
Issues and Actions committee
Political Actions committee
Ethnic and Minority Affairs committee
Services comm.
Volunteer Program comm.
Mentoring and Partnering comm.

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

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High school system redesign: an (unauthorized) minority report

Note: The Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfer (SACET) was asked to study and report on the high school system redesign. The SACET report (67 KB PDF) was issued in May, with the full support of 12 of 14 members of the committee. One member supported the report with some questions, and one member, your humble editor, could not support the report.

There was no official mechanism within the committee to issue a minority report, so this report is an ad hoc response to the shortcomings of the SACET report. As a member of that committee, I bear a share of responsibility for these shortcomings, so this report is not intended as a personal attack on any of my committee colleagues who spent a great deal of time and energy on a report that reflects much that I agree with. Rather, it seeks to cover areas that SACET did not cover, and amplify their call for “a plan that has neighborhood schools as its foundation.”

This report refers to the “Three Big Ideas” (592 KB PDF) as presented by the Superintendent’s team. This minority report is also available for download (124 KB PDF) –Ed.

Introduction

The Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfer (SACET) was asked to study and report on the “Three Big Ideas” for high school redesign. The three models were presented in broad strokes, with no analysis to support how the models would lower dropout rates, increase graduation or narrow the achievement gap.

The SACET report took note of these shortcomings, but failed to substantially analyze specific information that was given. The committee also failed to supplement given information with readily available data.

Specifically, SACET did not examine the three proposed high school models in light of:

  1. the clearly stated enrollment and transfer implications of the models,
  2. the number of campuses that would likely remain open with each model, and
  3. comparisons to existing high school models in the district and their successes and failures.

The committee also questioned the urgency of the process, which would seem to indicate a failure to appreciate how grossly inequitable our current system is. We don’t, in fact, currently have a “system” of high schools.

This lack of a central system (along with other factors, such as the school funding formula and allowance of neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers), has led to the statistical exclusion of poor and minority students from comprehensive secondary education in Portland Public Schools.

Therefore, it is of tantamount importance that we immediately begin implementing a system that eliminates race, income and home address as predictors of the kind of education a student receives in high school.

For the first time since massive revenue cuts in the 1990s began forcing decentralization of our school system, we are envisioning a single, district-wide model for all of our high schools. That is a remarkable and welcome step toward equity of educational opportunity in Portland Public Schools.

The focus of this minority report is on the three factors listed above: enrollment and transfer, number of campuses remaining, and comparisons to existing high schools.

Analysis of the Models

Special Focus Campuses

Large campuses (1,400-1,600 students) divided into 9th and 10th grade academies and special-focus academies for 11th and 12th grades. Students in 11th and 12th grades must choose a focus option.

Enrollment and transfer implications This model would more or less keep the existing transfer and enrollment model, and depend on an “if we build it, they will come” model to draw and retain enrollment in currently under-enrolled parts of the district by focusing new construction in these areas (per Sarah Singer).

School closure implications This model would support 6-7 high school campuses, leading to the closure of 3-4.

Comparison to existing schoolsThis model would draw on the “small schools” models that have been tried with varying degrees of success at Marshall and Roosevelt, and which have been rejected by the communities at Jefferson and Madison. It would also use the 9th and 10th grade academy model that has been successful at Cleveland.

Neighborhood High Schools and Flagship Magnets

Moderately-sized (1,100 students) comprehensive high schools in every neighborhood, with district-wide magnet options as alternatives to attending the assigned neighborhood school.

Enrollment and transfer implications This model would eliminate neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, as well as the problems that go with them: self-segregation; unbalanced patterns of enrollment, funding and course offerings; and increased vehicle miles. School choice would be preserved in the form of magnet programs.

School closure implications As presented, this model would support 10 high school campuses, requiring none to be closed.

Comparison to existing schools This model most closely resembles the comprehensive high schools that are the most successful and are in the highest demand currently in Portland Public Schools.

Regional Flex

The closest thing to a “blow up the system” model. The district would be divided into an unspecified number of regions. Each region would have a similar network of large and small schools, with students filling out their schedules among the schools in their region.

Enrollment and transfer implications Transfer between regions would be eliminated, allowing sufficient enrollment to pay for balanced academic offerings.

School closure implications Most high school campuses as we know them would be closed or converted, in favor of a distributed campus model.

Comparison to existing schools This model would draw on both small schools and comprehensive schools currently existing in our district, but as a whole would be more similar to a community college model than any existing high school model in our district.

Recommendation

It is understood that these models represent extremes, and that the ultimate recommendation by the superintendent will likely contain elements of each.

That said, the Neighborhood High Schools model is the closest thing to a truly workable model. If used as the basis of the ultimate recommendation, that recommendation will stand the highest political likelihood of winning a critical mass of community support.

Specifically, the neighborhood model:

  1. is responsive to high demand for strong neighborhood schools;
  2. supports a broad-based, liberal arts education for all students, but does not preclude students from specializing;
  3. balances enrollment district-wide, providing equity of opportunity in a budget-neutral way;
  4. preserves school choice, but not in a way that harms neighborhood schools;
  5. reduces ethnic and socio-economic segregation by reducing self-segregation;
  6. takes a proven, popular model (comprehensive high schools) and replicates it district-wide, rather than destroying that model in favor of an experimental model (small schools) that has seen limited success in Portland (and significant failures);
  7. preserves the largest number of high school campuses;
  8. involves the smallest amount of change from the current system, causing minimal disruption in schools that are currently in high demand;
  9. is amenable to any kind of teaching and learning, including the 9th and 10th grade academies and small learning communities; and
  10. preserves room to grow as enrollment grows.

This system is very similar to the K-12 system in Beaverton, which has a very strong system of choice without neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

The transfer and enrollment aspect of this model is its most compelling feature.

We have learned definitively that when we allow the level of choice we currently have, patterns of self-segregation and “skimming” emerge. These effects are aggravated by the school funding formula and a decentralized system. Gross inequities in curriculum have become entrenched in our schools, predictable by race, income, and address. These factors have also led to a gross distortion in the geographic distribution of our educational investment.

Clearly, in the tension between neighborhood schools and choice, neighborhood schools have been on the losing end. A high school model that includes neighborhood-based enrollment, while preserving a robust system of magnet options, is a step toward rectifying this imbalance.

We’ve also learned (through transfer requests) that our comprehensive high schools are the most popular schools in the district.

As we have experimented over the years with non-comprehensive models for some of our high schools, the remaining comprehensive schools have been both academically successful and overwhelmingly popular. The small schools model, while it has much to recommend, has been implemented in a way that constrains students in narrow academic disciplines, flying in the face of the notion of a broad-based liberal arts education.

There is certainly nothing wrong with small learning communities, but a system that requires students to choose (and stick with) a specialty in 9th or 11th grade is unnecessarily constraining.

A comprehensive high school can contain any number of smaller communities, including 9th and 10th grade academies. Older students may be assigned to communities based on academic specialty, but that shouldn’t preclude them from taking classes outside of that specialty.

The Neighborhood High Schools model clearly does not do everything – our district will remain segregated by class and race. But it would move in the right direction by eliminating self-segregation and beginning to fully fund comprehensive secondary education in poor and minority neighborhoods.

The enrollment and transfer policy could be further tweaked to help reduce racial and socio-economic isolation, as well as to alleviate community concerns that the reduced transfers will lead to poor and minority students being “trapped” in sub-par schools.

To this end, neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers could be allowed, so long as they do not worsen socio-economic isolation. In other words, a student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch could be allowed to transfer to a non-Title I school, and a student who doesn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch could be able to transfer to a Title I school. This is a form of voluntary desegregation that is allowable under recent Supreme Court rulings, since it is not based on race.

Conclusion

All of these models show creative thinking, and, most importantly, a strategic vision to offer all students the same kinds of opportunities, regardless of their address, class, or race. The importance of this factor cannot be overstated.

While none of the models specifically addresses the teaching and learning or community-based supports that are necessary to close the achievement gap and increase graduation rates, they all are designed to close the opportunity gap.

But only the neighborhood model hits the right notes to make it politically feasible and educationally successful: strong, equitable, balanced, neighborhood-based, comprehensive schools, preserving and replicating our most popular, most successful existing high school model, and keeping the largest number of campuses open. The choice is clear.

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

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In the news: another reason to question K8s

Reported on both KPTV television and KXL radio, a nine-year-old boy reported he witnessed a possible rape in the restroom of his K8 school, only to be accused of lying by school staff.

Portland Public Schools officials have piled on with further denial, claiming the alleged perp couldn’t have been in the restroom because he hadn’t signed out of class.

PPS has closed most middle schools in poor and minority neighborhoods over the past few years, converting elementary schools to K8s. Most middle schools in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods have been allowed to stay open.

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

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In the news: Other line items PPS could cut

In today’s Willamette Week, Beth Slovic details the “Gravy Trainers,” “Sweet Talkers,” “Real Estate Moguls” and others who seem to be escaping the budget knife, even as the district pushes a budget that would force furlough days on represented employees (without first consulting their unions). Rumor has it that 40 educational aid positions have been cut district-wide.

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

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