High school system redesign: an (unauthorized) minority report

7:17 am

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.


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.


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.


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.

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

filed under: Equity, Features, High Schools, Reform, School Closures, Segregation, Small Schools, Transfer Policy

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18 Responses

  1. Comment from Ken Libby:

    This is the kinda stuff the community needs – a viewpoint that critically asks questions about the models presented instead of simply flashing Powerpoint presentations and distributing pamphlets.


  2. Comment from Lakeitha:

    I agree Steve, thanks alot for this. We need to get thisinformation out as much as possible.

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    If you agree with this minority report, I would encourage you to let the Superintendent and school board know. Here are their e-mail addresses.

  4. Comment from Terry:

    What I don’t understand is how a committee supposedly tasked with providing advice on enrollment and transfer policies suddenly morphed into an advisory committee on high school reconfiguration.

    Classic bait and switch by the district, if you ask me.

    It also is a time honored tactic –at least dating to the Phillips tenure– of creating the illusion of public involvement in decision making while ensuring that the real decisions are ultimately made by a small group of top administrators.

    That said, the neighborhood comprehensive high school is clearly the best option. The problem is, I don’t see how you can have neighborhood high schools without having truly neighborhood elementary schools (or K-8’s and middle schools.)

    That presupposes ending neighborhood-to-neighborhood school transfers. And wasn’t that what SACET was originally all about?

  5. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    SACET was specifically asked to examine the models with regard to enrollment and transfer issues. There were other groups, including teachers, who had significant input.

    In my opinion, the committee got distracted by feeling 1) the models weren’t presented in enough detail and 2) the whole process was too rushed. Ergo, the committee’s report focussed largely on these issues and completely missed analyzing the models with regard to enrollment and transfer (as well as the other factors I called out in my report).

    That’s why I couldn’t support it, and that’s why I produced this report.

    I won’t try to speak for Carole Smith, but it seems to me that phasing out neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers where they’ve done the most damage — at the high school level — then phasing those changes down might make good political sense. I previously recommended starting with grade schools — where it would have the least impact — and phasing it upward, but why quibble about details?

    For the first time since I’ve been pushing, this is actually on the table. That’s pretty remarkable.

  6. Comment from Stephanie:

    Steve I like how you make a point to say that at the very least this closes the opportunity gap. If I am reading you right I agree that we need to do some things NOW so we can actually focus on teaching, learning, and community-based supports in the long haul. Right now we need to focus on the issue of race, income, address, and disability* predetermining your educational success.

    * One of my big pushes in that report is that disability must be included in statements of equity. It is not enough to say that people with disabilities are included when you say “diversity” because that is actually not true. Sure people with disabilities fall into categories of race, income, and address but they get a higher level of inequity called PLACEMENT in PPS. If you have autism in PPS you are likely to go to Alameda or Peninsula whether it takes an hour bus ride to get you there or not. You get no choice at all of schools and are not guaranteed your neighborhood school. I am looking forward to tackling that issue with SACET.

  7. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Stephanie, thanks for the work you do keeping disability rights visible. The fact that you’ve got to remind us on this blog is a testament to how difficult it is to keep the light shining on the difficulties kids face in this district if they have different needs. Sorry I don’t always keep that in mind!

  8. Comment from David Colton:

    Excellent report Steve. The formula for a good school is so simple. Good teaching and strong neighborhood schools evolved to encourage parents and families to keep their children in the neighborhood. Keep up the good work Steve. You are sincerely appreciated by those of us out here in the thick of it that see the serious problems that inequity in schools has created. David

  9. Comment from Stephanie:

    Thanks Steve and no need to apologize!

    Until PPS Equity and SACET I really thought there was a collective conspiracy against people with disabilities. It has been so wonderful to connect with like-minded people that simply did not know the brand of inequity our kids are experiencing in PPS and statewide. I have appreciated the questions and genuine curiosity of the people I have spoken and corresponded with. Most people do not know that students with disabilities are not guaranteed their neighborhood school and the heartache and financial strain of lawyer fees parents endure challenging segregated placements. I had someone on Urbanmamas call me a liar when I spoke up about this!
    I agree with David, the formula is so simple.

  10. Comment from John B. Tang:

    My question has to do with Pyramid Communications Consulting firm who was hired to be the public relations company to help PPS with selling the high school redesign idea to the public. I understand that this company belongs to friends of Zeke Smith, PPS Chief of Staff. I strongly suggest that a public investigation be opened to check into this matter. This is tax payers’ money that is being used to benefit friends and relatives of PPS employees. It is a violation of the Code of Ethics for Public Employees.

    Another serious and urgent matter to be paying attention to is the issue of using the stimulus money. This is no small chump change: $12 million. I understand that there needs to be a public input process as to how this money should be allocated. This would be a perfect opportunity to the public to help shape equitable decisions for the students and families in the city of Portland.

  11. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    According to Willamette Week, PPS paid Pyramid $93,400 for their work on the high school system redesign.

    I don’t know whether Zeke Smith is friends with the owners of this company, but I take issue with PPS hiring a PR firm to lead community discussions.

    You hire a PR firm when you have something to sell, not when you want community input.

    (Same story with the “qualitative” research — as opposed to statistical surveys — they did about the transfer policy a couple years back. You do focus groups when you want to hone your message, not when you’re trying to take the pulse of your constituents.)

    Spending tax dollars on marketing instead of statistical research is just another abomination of the market-based school reform movement.

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    By the way, that $94.3K was for four (4) months work…. the equivalent of a principal’s salary for a little push polling that had dubious value to the redesign process… just sayin’.

  13. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    FYI, the co-chairs of SACET (Tracy Barton and Peter Campbell), as well as PPS staff member Judy Brennan, took issue with my use of the term “minority report” in the title of this piece, as conveyed to me in a phone call from Ms. Barton.

    Very well… I’ve added the word “unauthorized” before “minority report” to make it a little more clear that SACET doesn’t condone minority reports.

    (I’m not sure who decided there would be no minority reports; I don’t recall it ever being discussed in full committee. It’s a shame. It unnecessarily detracts from the credibility of the committee, in my opinion.)

  14. Comment from Stephanie:

    I am sure Carole Smith appreciated it nonetheless and I really mean that…I bet she did.
    We all agreed to not represent the committee when we do things as citizens. I felt like you were very clear without adding unauthorized that you were not representing the committee and acting as a citizen that happened to be on this committee.

  15. Comment from Lakeitha:

    Looks like there might finally be some redesign of the transfer policy. Yeah!


  16. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve – you may not have recalled the discussion about minority reports because you missed 2 out of the 7 meetings. You also did not attend any of the sub-committee meetings, where extensive conversation and discussion occurred RE: the very things you say the committee failed to consider.

  17. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    There’s certainly no need to make this personal, especially since the superintendent has already issued her common sense high school system recommendations.

    My report is a response to what made it into the SACET report (and what was left out), not what was discussed at meetings. Discussions are fleeting; the report is part of the permanent public record.

    Perhaps a paragraph in my introduction above didn’t go far enough; I’ll repeat it here for emphasis:

    As a member of [SACET], 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.”

    I certainly hope SACET will stand behind Carole Smith’s bold policy proposal. I think it is very much in line with the values committee members have expressed (not to mention the recommendations of this report).

  18. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Personally, I don’t believe in committees which bind all members to the final results. Consensus has a way of creating watered down results. So, good job, Steve, of putting forth some more interesting and salient points. This issue is a long way from being settled.

    Which schools are we closing to make room for speciaty high schools?

    What will be the criteria for closing a school?

    Will the community really let resources move from Lincoln, Wilson, Cleveland, and Grant to other schools in order to bolster them up?

    How can we assess what needs to be in a high school, or any other school for that matter, when we don’t have a definition of what constitutes a good education.

    Why will the neighborhood schools be any better than what there is now if we don’t address the weaknesses in discipline, teacher hiring, parent involvement, the rotten middle school educations which feed these schools, the dropout problems, and the community cultures which affect the school climate?

    Nice to see they appear to be moving in the right directions though.