Category: Marshall High

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.

4 Comments

Size matters

How student transfers, “small schools,” and K8s steal opportunity from Portland’s least wealthy students, and how we can make it right

When speaking with district leaders about the glaring and shameful opportunity gap between the two halves of Portland Public Schools, it doesn’t take long before they start wringing their hands about enrollment.

“If only we could get enrollment up at Jefferson (or Madison, Marshall or Roosevelt),” they’ll tell you, “we could increase the offerings there.”

Or, as PPS K8 project manager Sara Allan put it in a recent comment on Rita Moore’s blog post about K8 “enrichment”: “All of our schools that are small … face a massive struggle to provide a robust program with our current resources.”

Not to pick on Sarah, but this attitude disclaims responsibility for the problem. After all, the “smallness” of schools in the PPS “red zone”* is by design, the direct result of three specific policies that are under total control of PPS policy makers:

  1. the break-up of comprehensive high schools into autonomous “small schools”
  2. the transition from comprehensive middle schools to K8s, and
  3. open transfer enrollment.

Smallness is not a problem in and of itself, but it is crippled by a school funding formula in which funding follows students, and there is little or no allowance for the type of school a student is attending (e.g. small vs. comprehensive or K8 vs. 6-8).

So when you’re dealing with a handicap you’ve created by design — smallness — it’s a little disingenuous to complain about its constraints. Instead, we need to eliminate the constraints — i.e. adjust the school funding formula — or redesign the handicap.

Adjusting the school funding formula to account for smallness would be ideal, if we had the funding to do it. Since we don’t, this would mean robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is, we would have to reduce funding at other schools to pay for smallness brought on by out-transfers, the K8 transition, or the small schools high school model. This obviously hasn’t happened, and it would be political suicide to suggest we start.

So barring a new source of funding to reduce the constraints of smallness, we need to redesign smallness.

The easiest case is the “small schools” design for high schools. Where students have been constrained to one of three “academies,” with varying degrees of autonomy, we simply allow students to cross-register for classes in other academies. Instead of academies, call them learning communities. Instantly, students at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt have three times the curriculum to choose from. The best concepts of “small schools” — teachers as leaders and a communities of learning — are preserved.

For K8s, the problem is simply that we can never offer as much curriculum with 50-150 students in what is essentially an elementary school facility as we can offer at a middle school with 400-600 students. So we offer a choice: every middle grade student can choose between a comprehensive middle school or continuing in their neighborhood K8. Reopen (or rebuild) closed middle schools in the Jefferson and Madison clusters, and bolster those in the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters. Families in every cluster then have the choice between a richer curriculum of a middle school or the closer attention their children may receive with a smaller cohort in a K8. We all like choice, right?

Which brings us to the stickiest wicket of the smallness problem: open transfer enrollment, which conspires with K8s and “small schools” to drain nearly 6,000 students from the red zone annually (that’s 27% of students living in the red zone and 12% of all PPS students). We’re well-acquainted with the death spiral of out-transfers, program cuts, more out-transfers, and still more program cuts. It has reached the point that it doesn’t even matter why people first started leaving a school like Jefferson.

If you look at Jefferson now, compared to Grant, for example, It’s shocking what you see. Not counting dance classes, Jefferson offers 38 classes. Grant offers 152.

What kind of “choice” is that? (Disclaimer: both the Grant and Jefferson syllabi listings may be missing courses if teachers have not yet submitted their syllabi.)

Obviously, given funding constraints, we can’t afford to have a school with 600 students offer the same number of classes as one with 1,600, as district leaders will readily point out. What they’re not fond of talking about is the budget-neutral way of offering equity of opportunity in our high schools: balance enrollment.

All of our nine neighborhood high schools have enrollment area populations of 1,400-1,600. Jefferson and Marshall, two of our smallest high schools by enrollment, are the two largest attendance areas by residence, each with more than 1,600 PPS high school students.

With a four-year phase-in (keeping in mind that transfers into Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland have basically been shut-down for a couple years anyway), you start by making core freshman offerings the same at every neighborhood high school. Incoming freshman are assigned to their neighborhood school, and they don’t have to worry about it being a gutted shell. (Transfers for special focus options will still be available as they are now.) The following year, we add sophomore classes, and so on, and in four years every neighborhood high school has equity in core sequences of math, science, language arts, social studies, world languages and music, paid for without additional funding and without cutting significant programs at schools that are currently doing well.

Once we have this balance in place, both in terms of offerings and enrollment, we can talk about allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers again, but only as we can afford them. In other words, we will no longer allow a neighborhood program to be damaged by out-transfers.

It’s time for Portland Public Schools to stop blaming its opportunity gap on the smallness it has designed — by way of “small schools,” K8s, and open transfer enrollment — and it’s time for policy makers to stop transferring the costs of smallness to our poorest students in terms of dramatically unequal opportunities.



*I define the red zone as clusters with significant net enrollment losses due to student transfers: Jefferson (net loss of 1,949 students), Madison (1,067 students), Marshall (1,441 students) and Roosevelt (1,296 students). (2007-08 enrollment figures.) This represents, by conservative estimate, an annual loss of $34 million in state and local educational investment to the least-wealthy neighborhoods in Portland. “Small schools” were implemented exclusively in these four clusters, and the K8 transition, though district-wide, has disproportionately impacted the red zone. There are only two middle schools remaining in the red zone, one in the Roosevelt cluster and one in the Marshall cluster. By contrast, the Cleveland and Wilson clusters each have two middle schools; Franklin, Grant and Lincoln each have one.

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

15 Comments

Libraries: an equity index

Neighborhood middle schools no library staff: 0
Of 30 neighborhood K8 schools, number with no library staff: 4
High schools with no library staff: 1 (Young Women’s Academy)
High schools with no certified media specialist (librarian): 3 (Marshall campus, Roosevelt campus, Young Women’s Academy)
Library staff at each of Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln High Schools: 3

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

15 Comments

PPS starting the school year off with a…

Tomorrow marks a significant milestone for Portland Public Schools, as Carole Smith begins her second school year at PPS, the first with her own budget. It’s not clear yet how she (and the board’s budget committee) did.

Fortunately, Smith gave us some key points on which to gauge progress.

On the day her hire was announced Smith said “Jefferson’s going to be great.” Her staff solicited “proof points” from the community last fall to be implemented this fall.

I suggested a dramatic increase in funding to immediately beef up schools like Jefferson (similar to Steve Buel’s suggestion here).

I have not yet heard whether this one-time arts magnet school has a music teacher this year, or a world language other than Spanish. There was also talk of adding AP classes. (Any reports from the Jefferson community would be appreciated.)

I do know the middle and high schoolers at Jefferson’s Young Women’s Academy still do not have a staffed library. Likewise the students of the academies at the Marshall High School campus, whose principal does not think students need library staff in the Internet age (librarians, please don’t throw things at your computer while reading this).

Speaking of libraries, another huge challenge to Smith was getting the K-8 transition out of crisis mode. By early summer, many parent concerns had been addressed, and the focus of concern came down to libraries. At the district’s last accounting, nearly a third of K-8 schools completely lack library staff. I know at least one of them has hired some part-time non-certified staff, but what about the others?

Carole Smith did not explicitly set out to reform the small schools at Madison, but the issue came up and forced her hand. Were this fall’s Madison students allowed to fill out their schedules with classes across the small schools walls?

David Colton’s involuntary transfer was — kind of — rescinded, but even he calls it a “Pyrrhic victory at best.” Whether or not students are still constrained to academic silos will be the true test of what kind of victory this is for them.

And while we’re on the topic of Madison, middle grades and libraries, 88 eighth graders start at Madison High tomorrow, and the school has lost its library assistant. They’re holding a fundraiser to get the position back. Also, word is that the Madison eighth grade academy has a severe shortage of clerical staff to register new eighth grade students who start school tomorrow, many without schedules.

On the eve of the 2008-09 school year, the jury is still out on whether we’re starting with a bang or a fizzle, but some preliminary signs look troubling. Please post your experiences here, or e-mail them privately if you prefer (steve at ppsequity dot org).

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

Comments Off

Feds open civil rights investigation of PPS

The Sentinel reports today that the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation of Portland Public Schools based on the complaint of Marta Guembes on behalf of limited-English proficiency (LEP) students at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

In a letter to superintendent Carole Smith dated July 15, 2008, the OCR notifies PPS that it is under investigation for violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically for:

  1. failing to provide LEP students the services necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate effectively in the district’s educational program; and
  2. failing to provide information in an effective manner to the parents of LEP students concerning their children and school programs and activities.

The choice of schools is illustrative of the segregation that reflects the concentration of immigrant populations in schools that form an outer ring in Portland, exacerbated by high out-transfer rates of white, middle class students to schools in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods.

Marshall, in outer southeast, is 22.9% English language learners (ELL), Roosevelt, in north, is 19.1% ELL, and Madison, in outer northeast, is 14% ELL.

Of the other high schools in Portland, only Franklin has more than 10% ELL (10.2%). Jefferson is 8.6%, Benson 5%, Cleveland 4.1%, Wilson 3.4% and Lincoln 1.2%.

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

3 Comments

A giant step

It is time for the Portland School Board to step up and take a giant step toward district-wide equity.

For the last couple of years they have only been willing to take baby steps, and anyone who ever played “mother may I” in their childhood knows baby steps are not enough.

A logical first step would be to add 12 FTE to each of the following high schools: Roosevelt, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, and Benson. This money could only be used to increase the curricular offerings in these schools (including maintaining a certificated librarian). The increased offerings should begin to strengthen the comprehensive nature of the school and thus attract students back to their own neighborhood school and help Benson begin to regain its previously well-deserved reputation.

The cost? About $5,000,000 I presume. The money would come from the money which would follow the returning students, the contingency fund (if the lack of curricular offerings and degradation of these schools doesn’t fit the definition of an emergency then I don’t know what will), the other places a good superintendent can find money in a $400,000,000+ budget, some grant money, and donations.

The superintendent and the school board need to either commit to having equitable and good high schools or find some other school district to administer. And they need to show their commitment with giant steps, not baby and backwards ones.

Notice this proposal skirts what is often referred to as the catch 22 of the transfer process — less kids equals less curricular offerings which means less kids which means less curricular offerings etc. A school board which allows its educational policy to be controlled by a bureaucratic catch 22 needs to reread the book — catch 22′s are to be fixed, not applauded.

Mother may I…….

Steve Buel has taught in public schools for 41 years. He served on the PPS school board (1979-1983) and co-authored the 1980 School Desegregation Plan. He has followed PPS politics since 1975.

2 Comments

Madison teachers vote no confidence in principal, small schools

In a move teachers’ union president Jeff Miller calls “extremely rare,” Madison teachers have voted “no confidence” in their principal.

This is another blow against the Gates Foundation’s “small schools” model, which, under former superintendent Vicki Phillips, was implemented exclusively in Portland’s lowest income high schools: Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

Evidence continues to roll in showing this model is failing by virtually all measures to achieve its goals, and instead robs our poorest students of equal educational opportunity and accelerates the outflow of students and their funding from these schools.

Yet PPS, under new superintendent Carole Smith, has demonstrated no serious intention of returning comprehensive high schools to these neighborhoods. And there seems to be no thought of shifting the “small schools” model to a “small learning community” model, as proposed by educator and activist Terry Olson.

As with the PK8 transition, another serious mess left by Vicki Phillips, half of PPS high schools remain in serious crisis, and Carole Smith’s administration takes only tentative, superficial steps to address foundational design defects.

At some point the school board needs to assert some leadership. They need to define what constitutes a comprehensive education, and guarantee it in every neighborhood school. Until they take that fundamental step, talk of equity is meaningless and the district remains in turmoil.

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

5 Comments

Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

Protesting the anticipated “involuntary transfer” of a highly-regarded counselor, around 50 Madison High School students walked out today, also citing discontent with the “small schools” model that has them constrained in narrow academic silos.

This model, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that is coming to an end, was implemented exclusively at the four high schools in Portland’s poorest neighborhoods: Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

Under this model, each school was carved into three or four narrowly-focused academies, each with its own administration, course catalog, and student body. Some resources, like PE and health teachers, have been shared, but in general, these small schools have proven to be a way to offer students fewer options at greater expense to the district.

In addition to being widely unpopular, the schools converted to this model have the highest drop-out rates in Portland Public Schools.

The small schools model hasn’t gone over well in the Jefferson cluster, where the community overwhelmingly opposed its implementation. Under popular pressure, and with the support of the site administration, the district has finally agreed to merge the two main Jefferson academies for 2008-09.

Unfortunately, a strict small school model remains in place at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt, with students unable to take classes outside of their academies. John Wilhelmi, the district’s point man on high school design, is known to be a proponent of this model, and absent the kind of resistance put up by the Jefferson community — and now by students at Madison — it is unlikely the district will change on ts own.

A sensible compromise would be to convert the “academies” into “learning communities,” with academic advisors (paid for with the FTE formerly spent on administrators) working with dedicated sections of the student body, but without students constrained to a strictly narrowed range of course offerings.

Who can argue that it makes sense to prevent Madison student Joe Scorse from taking a German class offered on campus, simply because it’s not offered in his academy?

It’s time to acknowledge that the small schools model has been neither well-received (these four schools continue to have the highest out-transfer rates) nor successful in its stated goal of narrowing the “achievement gap” (see the link on drop-out rates above).

The massive in-transfers at Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland show that what students and parents overwhelmingly want is a comprehensive high school. Why can’t PPS see fit to provide that in every neighborhood, not just the wealthy ones?

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

6 Comments