Category: Jefferson High

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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In the news: Oregonian analysis of high school future

The Oregonian attempted a little analysis today, with a two-page spread in the “In Portland” section.

Reporter Kimberly Melton took several factors into account, including enrollment trends, political climate, community resources and current academic programs.

What this approach clearly misses is that free-flowing student transfers have drained significant enrollment from schools in poor neighborhoods, resulting in schools with some of the largest attendance area population having the smallest enrollment.

Also not considered in The Oregonian analysis is the value of the properties.

In the past, Portland Public Schools has allowed student transfers to drain enrollment from poor schools, then used low enrollment as an excuse to close them (think Kenton, with its valuable real estate at the intersection of N. Interstate and Lombard). In its analysis of Jefferson High, The O mentions PCC, but not the fact that PCC has long coveted the property for its own expansion.

In the end, the O puts Jefferson, Grant and Madison in the “too close to call” column, which will only lead to more fear, uncertainty and doubt in the community. The district is already dealing with a mini parent rebellion at Grant, and Jefferson, Oregon’s only majority black high school, has long been suspected as a candidate for closure.

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

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Hip Hop Charter eyes Jefferson

In another sign of the failure of Portland Public Schools to fund and support a performing arts magnet school in a historically black neighborhood, a proposed charter school focused on many of Jefferson’s current and past strengths — namely video production and music — has its eyes on the now vacant music wing at Jefferson High as a possible location.

Jennifer Anderson reports in the Tribune today that Erica Jayasuriya, the organizer of the school modeled after a Minnesota charter school, also has her eye on Madison and Roosevelt areas.

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: high school field trip inequity

In a story complementing elementary teacher Bonnie Robb’s story here two weeks ago, Beth Slovic explains a similar problem for high school students in yesterday’s Willamette Week.

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

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This Week in PPS #1

Note: This the first episode in a new series, This Week in PPS. This will be a weekly podcast featuring news and events of interest to the greater PPS community. –Ed.

Download audio, subscribe to the podcast, or listen here:

School starts two hours late on Wednesday, and the school board holds a regular meeting. That plus a review of last week’s news on: This Week in PPS.

The school board has a regular meeting tonight (PDF). They will hear an update on the high school redesign process and vote on a resolution to support the free transit pass program for all high school students. They will also consider a business agenda which includes a contract for $51,000 in on-site graphic design work, and slightly less (25K) for mobile computer labs for K8 students. There is also a $200,000 amendment to an $800,000 contract with Broadway Cab for taxi services, and a $12,000 amendment for construction of modular classrooms at Laurelhurst and Rieke K8 schools. The board meets at 7pm at BESC, 500 N. Dixon St. Meetings are televised live on cable channel 28 and rebroadcast throughout the week.

School starts two hours late this Wednesday, the first of eight such late openings. Schools will open two hours late on the third Wednesday of each month except November and June this year to integrate staff training days with instructional days. Please check with your school about drop-off times and breakfast. If anybody has information to share, please comment on the blog!

Last week in PPS, our first week of school, parents were alarmed by the district’s handling of an incident involving erratic behavior by a school bus driver and a bus load of kids. Kim Melton reports in The Oregonian that parents were frustrated with how they were informed of the incident. All students made it home safely, many picked up by parents before replacement buses arrived, and the driver is suspended from duty pending an investigation.

Also last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Load covered school equity on their Tuesday show, specifically with regards to the new PPS high school plan. The show featured PPS’s John Wilhelmi and me discussing elements of the plan, along with Jefferson High students and Principal Cynthia Harris. On-demand audio of the show may be accessed at OPB.org/thinkoutloud.

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

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On the air

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s morning talk show Think out loud is covering school equity on the first day of school (Tuesday, September 8), with a focus on the PPS high school redesign. Guests include yours truly, Jefferson principal Cynthia Harris, and John Wilhelmi, who headed up the high school redesign effort for PPS.

The show airs live 9-10 a.m. and is rebroadcast at 9 p.m. the same day. You can also listen online or download podcasts after the show has been broadcast.

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 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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Moore: district missed opportunity for apology

Note:School board candidate Rita Moore sent this letter to Oregonian reporter Kim Melton regarding her coverage of the community high school redesign meeting at Jefferson High Saturday. The Portland Sentinel also covered the meeting. –Ed.

Just read your article on today’s meeting and I wanted to say thank you. After 4 hours of remarkably shallow discussions of the models and an additional hour talking with District leaders about the principal situation at Roosevelt, I appreciate your highlighting the level of frustration that was present in the room.

This forum was significantly longer than previous forums and was pitched as an opportunity to “go deep” on the high school redesign. Instead, despite the additional time, the discussion was, in fact, shallower and actually shorter on the specific models while pointedly evading the “deeper” issues.

Most disappointing, both [Superintendent] Carole [Smith] and [chief of staff] Zeke [Smith] refused to take the opportunity handed to them by several members of the community to apologize for subjecting poor and minority students to experimental structures and sub-standard curricula. Carole came close, but the “mistakes were made” formulation just won’t cut it and she needs to understand that. Until District leaders are willing to take responsibility and then take steps to fix the problems they have created, we will never be able to establish trust. And many of us will remain forever skeptical of both the intentions and the competence of the District to provide the kind of education that all our children deserve.

By the way, when exactly will the District address the K-8 situation?

Anyway, thanks for your report.

Rita Moore has a Ph.D. in Political Science and taught at universities in the US and Europe for 18 years. She now works as an advocate for children in the child welfare system and volunteers as a mediator and facilitator. She has one child in PPS and recently ran for the zone four position on the Portland Public Schools Board of Education.

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In the news: foundation reforms, Mincberg to depart

The Portland Schools Foundation (PSF) is mostly doing away with its competitive grant program, and will award most of its Equity Fund money based on need. Under the leadership of former PPS school board co-chair Dan Ryan, the foundation will also allow schools to hire teaching staff with the money, something that was not previously allowed.

This is a serious step toward ending the cruel irony of a system that has allowed wealthy families to directly fund teachers at their schools while scattering crumbs across the rest of the district. I and others have been calling for exactly this kind of reform for quite a while.

Dan Ryan deserves kudos for taking this first important step, but let’s go all the way. Eliminate the $10,000 exemption (wealthy schools keep all of the first $10K they raise) and raise the equity contribution to 50% (wealthy schools currently tithe 30% of funds raised). Only when we can hire one teacher in a poor school for every teacher hired with private fund-raising in a wealthy school will the Equity Fund live up to its name.

In other news, PPS COO Cathy Mincberg will leave the district May 15, according to a press release.

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

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Budget bright side: time for a reset

For two years I have argued that Portland Public Schools needs to balance enrollment in order to pay for programmatic, geographic equity in our schools. With poor schools already cut to the bone, the budget crisis may force the issue.

Carole Smith has now acknowledged to the school board, in a roundabout way, that we may no longer be able to afford the “smallness” we’ve designed into our schools: K8′s and small high school academies.

“In recent years, we’ve … supported small high schools with additional staff, and added assistant principals, algebra teachers and counselors for most K-8 schools. Can we afford to continue those initiatives?”

What she didn’t say is that even with this extra funding, students in small high schools and K8s have dramatically less opportunity than students in comprehensive high schools and middle schools.

As implemented in PPS, “smallness” is massively inefficient and more expensive than comprehensive schools, where cohort sizes in the hundreds afford significantly more opportunity for less money.

These failed experiments have contributed to the ill-effects of another failed experiment: the free market student transfer policy. This policy entered a death spiral years ago; now comprehensive secondary education has been virtually eliminated from the poorest half of the district, while transfer slots into comprehensive schools have all but dried up.

Students left in these schools suffer a general and wide-spread dearth of electives, instrumental music, college prep classes, civics, after school activities, and even science, math and literature.

Just as the free market banking crisis has succeeded in nothing more or less than transferring massive amounts of wealth upwards, the PPS transfer policy continues to transfer thousands of students and tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year.

We can’t fix the transfer policy without a coherent, equitable and balanced system of PK-12 schools. But we can’t afford comprehensive programs without the enrollment to pay for them.

And no matter what we do, the district faces large budget cuts.

So what can we do?

Just as with the global banking system, it’s time for a reset. We need to imagine a system that, no matter how lean, is no leaner in one part of Portland than another.

The budget crisis may force the district to do what I’ve been asking them to do for two years: restore comprehensive high schools at Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt. Re-open closed middle schools in those clusters, too.

More importantly, the district may be forced to balance enrollment — that is, curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers — to pay for programmatic equity in every part of Portland.

It is a budget-neutral way to increase programming — or stave off cuts — for our schools serving our most vulnerable students. We must imagine a system where the poor don’t bear the greatest brunt of budget cuts, as they have in Portland since Measure 5.

The bright side of this budget crisis is that we have the opportunity to design a balanced system of schools, where you cannot tell the wealth of the neighborhood by the number of classes in the high school’s catalog.

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

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