The end of the line

It is with both sadness and a sense of great relief that I tell you this will be the final post on PPS Equity. [Here's Nancy's farewell.]For two years we have documented inequities in Portland’s largest school district and advocated for positive change.  Along the way, we’ve explored how to use new media tools to influence public policy and foster a more inclusive form of democracy.

The reason for this shutdown is simple: we are moving our family out of the district, and will no longer be stakeholders. A very large part of our decision to leave is the seeming inability of Portland Public Schools to provide access to comprehensive secondary education to all students in all parts of the city. We happen to live in a part of town — the Jefferson cluster — which is chronically under-enrolled, underfunded and besieged by administrative incompetence and neglect. We have no interest in playing a lottery with our children’s future, and no interest in sending our children out of their neighborhood for a basic  secondary education. These are the options for roughly half of the families in the district if they want comprehensive 6-12 education for their children.

While there are some signs that the district may want to provide comprehensive high schools for all, there is little or no acknowledgment of the ongoing middle grade crisis. If the district ever gets around to this, it will be too late for my children, and thousands of others who do not live in Portland’s elite neighborhoods on the west side of the river or in parts of the Grant and Cleveland clusters.

It cannot be understated that the failure of PPS to provide equally for all students in all parts of the district is rooted in Oregon’s horribly broken school funding system, which entered crisis mode with 1990′s Measure 5. A segregated city, declining enrollment and a lack of stable leadership and vision made things especially bad in Portland.

But Portland’s elites soon figured out how to keep things decent in their neighborhoods. The Portland Schools Foundation was founded to allow wealthy families to directly fund their neighborhood schools. Student transfers were institutionalized, allowing students and funding to flow out of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods and shore up enrollment and funding in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  Modest gains for Portland’s black community realized in the 1980s were reversed as middle schools were closed and enrollment dwindled. A two-tiered system, separate and radically unequal, persists 20 years after Measure 5 and nearly 30 years after the Black United Front’s push for justice in the delivery of public education.

PPS seems to be at least acknowledging this injustice. Deputy Superintendent Charles Hopson laid it out to the City Club of Portland last October: “It is a civil rights violation of the worst kind… when based on race and zip code roughly 85% of white students have access to opportunity in rigorous college prep programs, curriculum and resources compared to 27% of black students.”

Despite this acknowledgment, the district is only addressing this inequity in the final four years of a K-12 system. We don’t, in fact, have a system, but a collection of schools that vary significantly in terms of size, course offerings, and teacher experience, often correlating directly to the wealth of the neighborhoods in which they sit.

As the district embarks on their high school redesign plan, which is largely in line with my recommendations, predictable opposition has arisen.

Some prominent Grant families rose up, first in opposition to boundary changes that might affect their property values, then to closing Grant, then to closing any schools. (They seem to have gone mostly quiet after receiving assurances from school board members that their school was safe from closure. Perhaps they also realized that they have more to fear if no schools are closed, since it would mean the loss of close to 600 students at Grant if students and funding were spread evenly among ten schools. In that scenario, the rich educational stew currently enjoyed at Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson will be a thinned out to a thin gruel. It would be an improvement for the parts of town that long ago lost their comprehensive high schools, but a far cry from what our surrounding suburban districts offer with the exact same per-student state funding.)

There is also opposition from folks who reflexively oppose school closures, many of them rightly suspicious of the district’s motivations with regards to real estate dealings and their propensity to target poor neighborhoods for closures.

Finally, there is opposition on the school board from the two non-white members, Martín González and Dilafruz Williams.

González’s opposition appears to stem from the valid concern that the district doesn’t have a clue how to address the achievement gap — the district can’t even manage to spend all of its Title I money, having carried over almost $3 million from last year — and that there is little in the high school plan that addresses this. (It’s unclear how he feels about the clear civil rights violation of unequal access this plan seeks to address. It seems to me we should be able to address both ends of the problem — inputs and outcomes — at the same time . The failure to address the achievement gap should not preclude providing equal opportunity. It’s the least we can do.)

Williams noted that she doesn’t trust district administrators to carry out such large scale redesign, especially in light of the bungled K-8 transition which she also opposed. It’s hard to argue with that position; the administration has done little to address the distrust in the community stemming from many years of turbulent and destructive changes focused mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

But more significantly, Williams has long opposed changing the student transfer system on the grounds that it would constitute “massive social engineering” to return to a neighborhood-based enrollment policy. Ironically, nobody on the school board has articulated the shameful nature of our two-tiered system more clearly and forcefully as Williams. But as one of only two non-whites on the board, Williams also speaks as one of the most outwardly class-conscious school board members. In years past, she has said that many middle class families tell her they would leave the district if the transfer policy were changed.

(Note to director Williams: Here’s one middle class family that’s leaving because of the damage the transfer policy has done to our neighborhood schools. And it’s too bad the district can’t have a little more concern for working class families. I know quite a few parents of black and brown children who have pulled their kids from the district due to its persistent institutional classism and racism.)

Williams (along with many of her board colleagues) has also long blamed the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the massive student outflows from our poorest schools, but this is a smokescreen. Take Jefferson High for example, which was redesigned in part to reset the clock on NCLB sanctions. Yet despite this, the district has continued to allow priority transfers out. Jefferson has lost vastly more funding to out-transfers than the modest amount of Title I money it currently receives.  If we don’t take Title I money, we don’t have to play by NCLB rules. (This is not a radical concept; the district has chosen this course at Madison High.)

It is hard to have a great deal of hope for Portland Public Schools, despite some positive signals from superintendent Carole Smith. We continue to lack a comprehensive vision for a K-12 system. English language learners languish in a system that is chronically out of compliance with federal civil rights law. The type of education a student receives continues to be predictable by race, class and ZIP code. Special education students are warehoused in a gulag of out-of-sight contained classrooms and facilities, and their parents must take extreme measures to assure even their most basic rights. Central administration, by many accounts, is plagued by a dysfunctional culture that actively protects fiefdoms and obstructs positive change. Many highly influential positions are now held by non-educators, and there is more staff in the PR department than in the curriculum department. Recent teacher contract negotiations showed a pernicious anti-labor bias and an apparent disconnect between Carole Smith and her staff. Principals are not accountable to staff, parents or the community, and are rarely fired. Positions are created for unpopular principals at the central office, and retired administrators responsible for past policy failures are brought back on contract to consult on new projects.

If there is a hope for the district, it lies in community action of the kind taken by the Black United Front in 1980. The time for chronicling the failures of the district is over.

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

I think this Web site has served to establish injustice. Many of us have tried to work with the district, serving on committees, testifying at board meetings, and attending community meetings. My family has brought tens of thousands of dollars in grant money and donations to the district, dedicated countless volunteer hours, and spent many evenings and weekends gathering and analyzing data.

There is no doubt that injustices exist, and there is no doubt that we have tried to negotiate. It’s time for self-purification — the purging of angry and violent thoughts — and direct action. It’s time to get off the blogs and take to the streets.

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

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Zeke Smith – Closing the Gap Then and Now

The high school redesign process is a mess but I have to wonder if that’s intentional.  Closing the achievement gap isn’t that complicated.  The district has had many opportunities to work towards closing the gap but failed to do so.

Here’s a list of some of the opportunities that the district has missed for better serving low-income and minority students:

  • failure to follow through on recommendations from mediation between PPS and the Education Crisis Team
  • failure to use almost $3 million in 2008/09 Title I funds intended to be spent on improving the educational program for poor kids
  • failure to use at least $500,000 annually in school level Title I funds for the last decade
  • a failed district audit of legally required Supplemental Services for struggling students
  • over two decades of failure to comply with civil rights laws for English Language Learners
  • decades of unchanging disparities in student discipline, special education, and talented and gifted rates

It’s widely believed that Zeke Smith is running the district now.  What does Zeke know about closing the achievement gap?

Zeke was the Portland Schools Foundation’s Director of Community Engagement in 2007 when they identified Astor, Clark, Faubion, Vestal and Woodmere as  Excellence in Education Award winners for being high poverty schools that were closing the achievement gap.  At that time the Portland Schools Foundation reported:

There is remarkable consistency in the research on the essential elements of schools that are closing the achievement gap – it doesn’t happen by chance.  Six key factors need to be in place for schools to make significant gains:

  • high expectations
  • leadership
  • quality teaching
  • ongoing professional development
  • community engagement
  • accountability

What?  Where does it mention equity in access? Is that  the 7th key factor?

It seems to me that the absence of the 6 key factors in this week’s high school resolution was the reason that board members Williams and Gonzalez opposed the resolution.

Show me a resolution that includes a detailed plan for ensuring those 6 key factors are in place and I might be able to get behind it.

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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Starbase speech to the PPS school board

here is the speech i gave Monday, March 8:

Good evening. I am Nancy Ellen Rawley, the mother of two students, a 2nd and a 5th grader at North Portland school. I am co-publisher of PPS Equity.org and a PPS employee. I am also a member of PFTCE. But tonight I am here as my kids’ mom. Happy International Women’s Day.

As we like to say when we start these things out:

All power to the people.

I am here this evening to protest Starbase, a military recruitment program aimed at children kindergarten through 12th grade. Starbase has partnered with PPS for 17 years and pays the district more than $300,000 annually in exchange for access to our children. The program is held on a military base – the children are taken there, by bus, for five full days.

My daughter’s class will attend in April; our family is boycotting. She is not being offered an alternate curriculum. Her school has not sent home a packet or planned a parent information night, although I have requested. I had to ask three times before I was given the tentative dates. The only reason I knew about it was from another parent. I first heard about the program, however, when Winterhaven parents protested Starbase in 2006.

I was told by my children’s principal to stop asking questions about Starbase. Our principal has stated that it is not “military recruitment,” but rather a science and engineering opportunity, that our school does not have the money for science and engineering classes and that we need Starbase.

Our school has science partnerships with both Xerox and the University of Portland. Also, the children are taught science and math by their extremely capable teachers in class. Our school last year did not spend $31,476 of their allotted Title I money. We do not need Starbase. When a principal, and a school district, acts this way toward a parent – you are not just yanking my chain. You’re acting as if I have no brain.

I should not have to defend my family’s beliefs – we are pacifists  – or try to convince you that it’s immoral – and possibly illegal — for PPS to accept this money. Why does Starbase want our kids? The military needs soldiers. They are sending people for 2, 3, 4 tours. If they come home, they are often suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress and other health problems, and they are committing suicide at greater rates than ever. Starbase is aimed at poor kids, non-white kids, vulnerable kids. The majority of schools that participate are low-income, with what are termed “high-risk” students.

Also – we’re at war. With Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it smart to have children – or any civilians – on military bases at this time?

I’d like to ask you: Can a sister get a witness, please? Thank you.

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Wacky Mommy. Used by permission.

Nancy Rawley was co-publisher of PPS Equity. She blogs regularly at Wacky Mommy.

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STARBASE reauthorized on a 4-3 vote

The Portland Public Schools board of education voted 4-3 tonight to approve another year of STARBASE, the Department of Defense’s elementary school recruiting program.

Principled “no” votes were cast by co-chair Ruth Adkins, Martin Gonzalez and Dilafruz Williams. David Wynde, Bobbie Regan, Pam Knowles and co-chair Trudy Sargent carried the resolution.

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

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STARBASE rally TONIGHT!

After a delay to get more information, the school board is once again poised to approve the STARBASE program, which sells the military access to fourth and fifth graders for a couple hundred thousand dollars. The rally is at 6pm Monday at district headquarters, 501 N. Dixon Street.

From the event’s Facebook announcement:

Come out to testify against or bear witness as the Portland Public School Board votes to allow military recruitment, under the guise of science education, of our children in grades K-5.

Military bases are not designed for children, they are not playgrounds.

Military bases, including our local Armory, store toxic materials and jet fuels; not safe for children.

We are a country at war, military bases are not safe places for civilians, especially children, during wartime. They are targets.

Military personnel returning from active duty may suffer unpredictable and often violent behavior as a result of service. Luckily no children were injured on the base in Texas when such an incident occurred.

Of the 18 schools participating in this program all but 4 are Title 1 schools. All but three have higher percentages of minority students, and all but four have higher poverty.

Violence is on the increase in our public schools and culture. Exposing our young, impressionable children to exciting, high tech, high powered, weapons will not help in our struggle to move toward a more tolerant and peaceful society.

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

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FREE Public Education… But Please Donate at Roosevelt

POWER Academy at Roosevelt had $24,962 in Title I funds remaining at the end of the 2008/09 school year.  So imagine my surprise when reviewing their 2009/10 Course Guide and I read:

Under Oregon law, students cannot be required to pay a fee for classes that are part of the regular school program. However, in some instances, you may be asked to make a contribution for certain classes where additional learning materials enable the school to expand and enrich those classes. Certain science lab expenses and art class supplies are examples of classes where your contribution can make a difference in the quality of the class. You are not required to pay the requested contribution in order to enroll in the class. POWER Academy is only able to offer these enhanced learning opportunities for students because of your support and contributions. We appreciate your commitment to our instructional program and

Roosevelt is 81% free and reduced lunch but Lincoln is only 10% free/reduced.  Why does Roosevelt ask for donations but Lincoln does not?  Why doesn’t Roosevelt use their Title I money to fund the programs?

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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Did PPS Waste $4,964,861 on an Ineffective Math and Science Program?

The Portland Public School board is scheduled to vote March 8th on a program that would allow military recruitment, under the guise of science education, of PPS kids in grades K-5.  The program (STARBASE) has been in Portland schools since 1993.  PPS receives just over $300,000 per year for providing access to the kids.

STARBASE and the district’s claim that there’s a need for this particular program or that it’s an effective way to teach science is weak at best.

In 2001, PPS was awarded a $4,964,861 five year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant  with these goals:

  1. to enable all of the district’s diverse student enrollment to meet rigorous K-12 standards in science and mathematics and prepare for postsecondary education and future careers;
  2. to increase the district’s capacity to develop, support, and sustain teacher and principal leadership;
  3. to engage families and the community in supporting improved student performance in science and mathematics and improved access to high quality, inquiry-based educational opportunities; and
  4. to establish ongoing collaborative partnerships with higher education, business/industry, policy makers, and other key stakeholders in support for exemplary, research-based teaching and learning in science, mathematics, and technology within the context of a large and diverse urban district.

In a 2004 PPS grant report, PPS makes the following claims about the NSF program:

  • In science, NSF schools made a gain of 6% in 5th grade, 6% gain in 8th, and 9% gain in 10th grade, compared to district growth of 4%, 4%, and 9%.
  • Minority students improved in science in the NSF schools faster than whites.  The percentage of 5th grade African American students who met standards increased from 36% from 47%, compared to whites that increased from 79% to 81%.
  • Hispanic students have traditionally not performed well in math and science.  This year, many of them improved particularly in science.  In NSF schools, the number of Hispanic students who met standards increased from 37% in 5th grade to 46%, from 25% to 34% in 8th, and from 20% to 27% in 10th.

Inverness Research Associates conducted annual evaluations of the NSF grant.  The October 2006 final report states:

In our view, the Portland USP can readily claim success with developing greater teacher leadership capacity for math and science education improvement in their district. Their theory of action – of how to achieve increased capacity – was sound. First they focused on creating change “from the bottom up,” instead of from the top down. The USP also sought to make lasting changes to teachers’ beliefs, recognizing that ultimately the individual is the unit of change. Changes that reside within the individual teacher, that is – their ways of thinking and teaching and learning vis-à-vis math and science education – are, therefore, lasting legacies.  Schools come and go, and staffs and principals and reform foci also shift frequently in large urban districts. Given that reality, seeking to create changes from the bottom up, and individual-to-individual, are strategies that promise a greater likelihood of sustainability. Also when robust vision, commitment and skills reside locally at the school level, the work of improvement in math and science is more likely to continue in spite of district change. Finally it is important to point out that teacher leadership capacity does not disappear. It is a renewable resource, a districtwide (though often invisible) asset that can be harnessed and directed for worthy purposes.  The development of indigenous teacher leadership is, therefore a wise, ecological model for improvement.

Inverness Research Associates’ final report indicates that the program was a big success.  The conclusion is too lengthy for a blog but these are the highlights.

Given the relatively small scale of the USP investment, roughly $20 per student per year, it has reaped enormous benefits, leaving behind a host of tangible and intangible assets in the district.  To name the most significant of these assets are: a well-honed, highly respected and very experienced leadership team for math and science; a district-wide group of teachers and teacher leaders committed to math and science improvement; a cadre of classroom teachers with vastly improved skills and knowledge in math and science teaching, as well as skills and knowledge about how to work together to provide and continuously improve high quality programs for students; systems and structures organized to deliver and maintain curricular materials; a strategically designed, well-crafted professional development program; a clearly articulated and commonly held vision for high quality math and science education which lends coherence to efforts for improvement at multiple levels of the system; and finally, the accumulated good will and success of the USP effort which enables people to continue to work hard and with optimism toward their shared goals even in difficult circumstances.

So given PPS own data and reports and an evaluation conducted by an outside organization, the NSF program was effectively closing the achievement gap in math and science and PPS could have easily sustained the effort for $20 per year per student.

Why is PPS now offering up the very same groups of kids supported by the NSF grant to the military for a mere $300,000 in a weak, non-sustainable so-called science program?  Have they dismantled the infrastructure that was so effective for poor and minority children?

It just makes my point in the previous post that PPS is unwilling to close the gap.  The bottom line is that PPS poor kids are the district’s contribution to the war efforts.

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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Teacher contract approved: What’s it mean for teachers?

It sounds like the district got at least part of what they wanted regarding instructional time. What did teachers get, besides modest cost of living raises for two out of three years? What’s the teacher mood?

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

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Inequities in Special Education

As we blog, march, form coalitions, and community-meeting ourselves into a frenzy over the blatant inequities in education in PPS there is still a population of families that are not being heard in the large public forums and whose issues are invisible to most. These are families of children with disabilities and the success stories are few and far between and behind the success story you typically find a sleep-deprived and demoralized family member that is usually one meeting away from giving up. I write about those issues here from time to time but an email that came in to me recently I felt compelled to share and received permission from the parent to post her email here:

Dear Special Education Stakeholders,

I’m writing you today to bring to the surface an issue that we all know exists but nobody wants’ to talk about. And, an issue that is significant to the work being done on this project.

On January 8th we sent a note to school with one of our sons asking about something that had occurred the day before. He returned home that day with no response to our note but he did report that an adult at school told him to “shut-up”. This was one of several incidents that we had concerns over and already had a number of conversations with the classroom teacher about, so on this occasion we wrote a letter and brought our concerns to the principal. We subsequently requested a meeting to voice our concerns and that meeting was held on January 22nd.

On January 28th we received a call from a CPS worker who said she had been out to the school that day to interview our 12 year old foster son, in response to a complaint of suspected abuse that was called in from school. However, she reported to us that he was obviously getting over a cold but, she couldn’t understand him, the teacher in the classroom didn’t sign and nobody provided the CPS worker with the communication book. This boy has a severe speech disorder and is mentally challenged. Through a very long process the district has finally agreed to provide a speech device in the classroom similar to one he owns, this year. However, the life skills staff still will not work with him on how to use it at school. If this CPS allegation had not merely been an attempt at retribution but a real risk actually existed then this child might still be at risk because he can’t communicate with investigators or emergency responders.

On January 29th at 2 o’clock in the afternoon we received a call from one of our 11 year old sons’ mainstream teachers claiming that our boy had a very difficult week and a half. The teacher told us that our boy who is both mentally and physically handicapped has been violent, casting racial insults and several other horrible allegations. He informed us that our son had received several referrals and could not return to school next week. When we read the referrals that our son brought home we came to realize that this child had been in two high risk situations that he couldn’t manage and none of the preventative measures that we had agreed upon both in meetings and in writing had been followed, and then he was suspended for it. Some of the staff that wrote the referrals are the same individuals that were the focus of our complaints on the 22nd and our 11 year old son is the student who initiated those complaints.

As a family with three children with disabilities and all on IEPs, intimidation and reprisal are the hallmarks that define most of our experience with Portland Public Schools over the last few years. That is the primary reason I became a part of this process; to be a part of the solution. But, I’m writing this today because as this process moves forward on the 19th it is crucial to remember that this story is unfortunately not unique. In working with OrFirst and other families my wife and I have learned that we are not the only family in a debate with schools that have found themselves the focus of a child abuse allegation that was called into the hot line from school and our son is not the first mentally handicapped child that was placed in a volatile situation and then declared a danger to themselves or others; and nobody ever wants to talk about it. When our son, who has never received a referral before, came home that Friday he didn’t come with just one referral, he received one from each member of his life skills classroom staff, one from one of his gen-Ed teachers and all signed by another of his gen-Ed teachers. We were told that “the staff who handled this wants (him) to get a really strong message.” The nightmares He had for a week of teachers “yelling and screaming” at him confirm that he got that message. And the attitude that this could never happen is the very reason why it can happen.

We too voted in favor of measure 66 & 67 because we believe that a free and appropriate education is the right of every child, but we also believe that a safe and responsible education is part of that right as well. Like many families that have found themselves in this very position we have found no support within the district and no recourse to protect our children. Many of the children on IEPs face a hard life ahead of no acceptance, bigotry and manipulation from the rest of the world. They should feel like their teachers and their school is a safe haven from that kind of treatment.  So, as this process moves forward to hopefully better this system for staff and students alike I beg you to consider the children who can’t protect themselves and to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. Because, you have the power to effect change and ensure that every foster child receives a responsible education and nobody’s child can ever be manipulated as a statement to their families again.

After I received this email the parent wrote me a follow up email with a glimmer of hope:

Dear Stephanie,

As an outcome of the letter I sent to Special Education Stakeholders Joanne Mabbot has agreed to meet with parents and advocates to discuss issues surrounding how parents and students are sometimes treated by administration and staff during a dispute. This is an opportunity for families and students to share their stories in person or in writing if they believe their child was mistreated or unfairly disciplined while they were in a conflict with the school. We also want to look at how often school personnel use the child abuse hot line as a tool to intimidate families while in a dispute. If you or any of the families that you have worked with would like to share their stories please have them contact me by e-mail or directly at 503-253-0548 or Robin Malone at the district office 503-916-3297.
And to add the emphasis on this story here is a comment I found on the UrbanMamas blog that really sums up well what it is like to parent a child with an invisible disability like autism.

My child is in a CB–he has Asperger’s and needs some extra support managing the school environment. He spends all of his day at this point in gen ed, but he has access to a para for behavioral/help.
While it’s great he’s in gen ed, even so our experience is so different and will be for you too. The parents are nice, but they don’t “get it” and it’s scary to them (something could happen and THEIR child could be “different” too) or he does something “inappropriate” and they give me the look–you know the one, where you must be a bad parent because of how your child acts (invisible disabilities are hard). We always feel like we’re outside and really not part of things.
I don’t mean to sound bitter, but in my experience, even when you’re in a regular school, your situation is still not regular. You’re not really part of everything because your situation is different. I thought that maybe it was ME, that I’m caring about what they think too much, but it’s not. It’s a different experience because our kids are different. It’s often alienating. I hope it works out for you and you have a better experience than I have, but I just feel like we’re not part of the “group” unless we’re around the other kids/parents who also have kids on the spectrum, or have behavioral challenges, etc. Then everyone is relaxed and “gets it” and it’s a great feeling! I feel like part of the group!

As we fight the good fight for all of our kids to receive a free and appropriate public education in PPS remember that these families need a voice as well. Find them and bring them into the fold, make sure they get the microphone at the community meetings, request they speak to the PTA on invisible and other disabilities, and just try to teach others that kids develop differently and some have challenges and  it is better to find a way to support their family instead of judging them.

Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.

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HS Redesign resolution: a few suggestions

Here is the body of a letter to the Superintendent, School Board and Redesign Team.  This version contains a few more points and questions that I wish I had thought to include in the original.  My thanks to others out there whose research helped me write this.

First, thank you for the work you are doing to improve our local high schools.  It is both urgent and long overdue.

The Resolution that Supt. Smith unveiled on Feb. 8 is a start.  From here, it looks as if it is undergoing some revisions.  I would like to propose a few more:

1) Strike the language about focus option schools. It is unnecessary anyway, as this issue is already covered in the Board Policies. Those focus options that are thriving in the District have done so because community members came to the Board and pushed to get those programs, not the other way around. If there is community demand for a particular focus option, then it makes no sense to use a building with a capacity for 1500 to serve only 200-400; I seem to recall that was the rationale for so many of the elementary closures over the past 10 years. Focus options can be either co-housed within neighborhood high schools OR set up in the smaller, unused buildings—although I would be very careful about choosing the latter, as we now have many overcrowded K-8s that would benefit from the reopening of some of those buildings such as Rose City Park and Kellogg.

2) Strike the language about closing high schools. It is causing a great deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety to Eastside families that have already lost their elementary and/or middle schools and are still dealing with the fallout from that. Furthermore, it is a highly polarizing strategy that, in and of itself, will solve nothing. Also, the increasing numbers of children in the primary grades will be high school age in only 8 years and, according to every population forecast, no matter how conservative, more are coming. Seattle School District found out the hard way that it costs more to close buildings and reopen them later than to keep the buildings open and running. Should we follow their example, or should we be smart about this?

3)   Work on the language concerning transfers.  If every high school really does have 1100 or more students within its attendance area, then closures are unnecessary.  Franklin HS has already shown us that a robust curriculum can be offered with a student body of only 1000.  PPS also posted a document on their website less than three months ago that shows 1100 as the “magic number.”

4)   Work on your budgeting process.  If is it true that only $4.5 million is necessary to provide equity of curriculum across the district (and I am VERY curious about where that number came from), then it is time to stop throwing money away on expensive consultants and put it into the schools, where it belongs.  Even if the amount needed is actually higher, it would be worth the time and effort to research exactly what the necessary amount is and how it could be accomplished.  For example, taking advantage of efficiencies such as sharing faculty between buildings would reduce the overall number of FTE (and therefore $) needed to meet the goal and would also be a much “greener” choice than bussing children across town.  Another idea would be to overhaul the Portland Schools Foundation and restore its original mission: balancing resources between rich and poor neighborhood schools.  (If anyone is curious about my ideas on this one, I would be happy to address the issue in a separate post.)

5)   OR, set this whole thing aside and turn your attention to the K-8s, where it is also long overdue.  If the problems in those schools aren’t fixed, then anything you do to the high schools will fail anyway because the children arriving in 9th grade will be too unprepared.  Calling a meeting once every two years to hear parents air their grievances is a pointless exercise unless someone in the District has specific responsibility for following up.  After four years, we haven’t seen a whole lotta follow-up.

Zarwen is a parent, taxpayer, former teacher, and frequent commenter on education blogs.

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