Category: Program cuts

The continuing history of racism in Portland Public Schools

Sixty-one years after Mendez v. Westminster, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 51 years after the Little Rock 9, 48 years after Ruby Bridges, 45 years after George Wallace caved to the national guard at the University of Alabama, 28 years after Ron Herndon stood on the school board desk and demanded equal opportunity for Portland’s black school children, and two years after city and county auditors demanded justification for effectively segregationist enrollment policies, Portland Public Schools have become more segregated than the neighborhoods they serve.

The school board refuses to answer the auditors, and shows no intention of changing the policies that have created the situation.

The segregation (or “racial isolation,” as the district calls it) would not be so objectionable, if it weren’t for the fact that schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have dramatically better offerings than the rest of Portland.

The desegregation plan hatched by Herndon’s Black United Front and pushed through by then-school board members Steve Buel, Herb Cawthorne and Wally Priestley in 1980 did away with forced busing of black children out of their neighborhoods, added staff to predominantly black schools, and created middle schools out of K-8 schools to better integrate students within their neighborhoods.

For several years, things clearly got better for non-white, non-middle class students in PPS. Then the nation-wide gang crisis hit Portland in 1986, with white supremacist, Asian and black gangs wreaking havoc and contributing to a wave of white flight from Portland’s black neighborhoods and schools. This was followed by the draconian budget cuts of Oregon’s Measure 5 in 1990, which ended the extra staffing brought by the 1980 plan.

Under inconsistent funding and unstable central leadership throughout the 1990s, central control over curricular offerings devolved to the schools, and the gravity of a self-reinforcing pattern of out-transfers and program cuts became virtually insurmountable.

The devolution of curriculum was formalized under the leadership of Vicki Phillips in the early 2000s. Her administration pushed market-based reforms and “school choice” as a salve for the “achievement gap,” and used corporate grants to extend reconfiguration of high schools in poor neighborhoods into “small schools” which severely limited educational opportunities available to Portland’s poorest high school students.

(Small school conversions were tentatively under way at Marshall and Roosevelt when Phillips took office, but didn’t become the de facto model for non-white, non-middle class schools until Phillips pushed it through at Jefferson, against community wishes, and finally at Madison, casting aside the designs of veteran educators who had initiated the concept.)

A bond measure whose revenue was intended to restore music education to the core curriculum was instead frittered away in the form of discretionary grants to schools. Principals in poorer neighborhoods continued to put teaching resources into literacy and numeracy at the expense of art and music, while schools in white, middle class neighborhoods continued to offer a broad range of educational opportunity.

The Phillips administration also began to dismantle middle schools in poor neighborhoods, including, notably, Harriet Tubman Middle School, which was created under the 1980 desegregation plan. This move back to the K-8 model added significantly to the resegregation of middle school students.

It also turns out that middle schoolers in K-8 schools, who are disproportionately non-white and poor, get fewer educational opportunities at greater cost to the district. Predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have, by and large, been allowed to stick with the comprehensive middle school model, which allows them to offer a much broader range of electives, arts and core curriculum at no additional cost.

So in 28 years, we have moved from a reasonable semblance of equal opportunity, with schools’ demographics reflecting their neighborhoods’, to a demonstrably “separate and unequal” system, with schools more segregated than their neighborhoods.

Current policy makers like to blame Measure 5 and the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the wildly distorted educational opportunities in the district, and they generally refuse to examine district policy in the context of the advances in equity that were realized 28 years ago.

PPS has managed to maintain pretty good schools in white, middle class neighborhoods through years of stark budget cuts, but they have left poor and minority children fighting over crumbs in the rest of Portland. Even as the steady march of gentrification makes our neighborhoods more integrated, our schools are more segregated than they were in the early 1980s.

When today’s school board speaks of “school choice,” the “achievement gap” or “equity,” they appear to speak in a historical vacuum. I hope to remind everybody of the context of PPS’s policies, and the continuum of institutional racism they are a part of. These policies are indeed racist in effect, no matter how they are rationalized or how they were originally intended.

And no matter how much they complain that their hands are tied, or how much they claim to be making progress by “baby steps,” the school board has total control over district policy. They could start rectifying this immediately if they wanted to. Yes, it’s hard — ask Steve Buel or Herb Cawthorne about their late-night sessions trying to push the 1980 desegregation plan through — but it can be done.

I know there are school board members who care deeply about equal opportunity. They may even be in the majority, depending on who is appointed to replace Dan Ryan.

But nobody on today’s school board has demonstrated the political courage or vision necessary to stand up for all children in Portland Public Schools.

With baby steps, we will never get where we need to go. Bold, visionary action is required.

Edited January, 2016: For more background on Ron Herndon and the Black United Front, watch OPB’s Oregon Experience Episode “Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev’ry Voice.”

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

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PPS Equity 2007-08 retrospective

The 2007-08 PPS school year heard lots of talk of equity, but no common vision has emerged for what that means or how we can get there.

Things started on a cautiously optimistic high note with the hiring from within of Carole Smith, whose staff started saying the right things about equity.

The school year built to a climax with the mayor’s week at Jefferson in January, but the wind started to come out of the sails with a new budget that brings further staffing cuts at schools in poor neighborhoods. Questions remain about the district’s commitment to “proof points” at Jefferson, such as merging the academies, to say nothing of restoring the performing arts department or restoring AP classes.

Questions about the PK-8 transition bubbled up and led to Smith’s first encounter with an angry mob. She responded with an action team. Some of the biggest holes are plugged, but PK-8 remains in crisis, still short library staff for eight schools.

In the end, we still don’t know: What defines equity? There have been no changes to the policies most responsible for inequity (open transfers and the school funding formula). Worse, the district seems fixed in a mindset that they can guarantee outcomes for children affected by poverty. But this mindset has subjected our poorest children to less educational depth and breadth, and can only accelerate out-transfers of those better off.

The longer they try to deliver “equity” like this, the more inequitable things have gotten.

Ultimately, the only path to equity is equal opportunity and balanced enrollment. That is (like I said in September), we’ve got to define a comprehensive curriculum (including arts, libraries, technology, etc.) and deliver it in every neighborhood school, and we’ve got to talk about the transfer policy in the detail requested by the Flynn-Blackmer audit, issued two years ago this month.

September 2007

Report on transfer policy and neighborhood funding inequity presented to school board

I present the school board and interim superintendent Ed Schmitt the first draft of my report Charting Open Transfer Enrollment and Neighborhood Funding Inequities (261KB PDF). The report details how the district’s transfer and enrollment policy takes significant funding from our poorest neighborhoods — over $40 million in 2006-2007 — and hands it to our wealthiest neighborhoods. The poorest school clusters — Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt — continue with disproportionate program cuts as enrollment and funding flow to more affluent neighborhoods. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods effectively maintain comprehensive programming at the expense of our poorest citizens.

PPS changes policy to allow corporate advertising in school gyms

Before Carole Smith is hired, the school board votes to allow the Trail Blazers to “donate” the refinishing of our ten high school gym floors in exchange for the placement of permanent corporate ads. Dwight Jaynes loves the idea, others do not. Rick Seifert (of Red Electric fame) inspires the nickname Dwight “Burgerville” Jaynes.

October 2007

Smith hired from within

Bucking a trend of hiring administrators from outside of the district, the school board surprises many by hiring Carole Smith from within. Smith wastes no time setting high expectations, saying “Jefferson’s going to be great.”

District low-balls rehired custodians

Opening negotiations with their rehired custodians, PPS offers a 30% pay cut.

District data show transfer policy aggravates segregation

In advance of board discussion on the transfer policy, administrators present data showing the segregation caused by the transfer policy.

City offers million dollar band-aid to district’s 40 million dollar problem

Erik Sten‘s Bureau of Housing and Community Development offers Portland schools a million dollars to to “create excitement.” Excitement fails to materialize.

November 2007

Board dances around transfer issue, takes no action to balance enrollment

The school board finally gets around to talking about its transfer policy, a year and a half after auditors asked for clarification. They artfully avoid answering city and county auditors’ questions about racial and economic segregation caused by its policy.

December 2007

Board rejects all four charter applications

Possibly signaling a new attitude, the school board rejects four charter school applications.

New Administration makes positive rumblings about “Equity”

Carole Smith’s administration starts saying the right thing about equity.

January 2008

Mayor Potter comes to Jefferson

The school board comes, too, and is met with a parade of students speaking eloquently about the lack of rigorous and varied course offerings available to them. The Jefferson High School PTSA presents the school board with their comprehensively damning resolution calling for an end to the transfer policy that has devastated the schools in our poorest neighborhoods. I put in my two cents worth, too, addressing the intolerable inequity created by the board’s transfer policy.

The whole scene is repeated Wednesday, when the City Council meets at Jefferson. In addition to the students and PTSA members, city council candidate and Wilson High parent Amanda Fritz addresses the council about the glaring differences between her daughter’s school and Jefferson. I speak of the school district and city working at cross purposes.

The week wraps up with the mayor’s state of the city address to the City Club on Friday, with club members getting a tour of Jefferson’s half-empty library, and the mothballed metal shop, TV studio and band room.

The entire week leaves the Jefferson community buoyed by a sense of hope and possibility. How could a city like Portland tolerate such glaring inequity?

February 2008

PPS Equity launched

It seems like it’s been a lot longer, but I just launched this site in February.

The last “Celebration!”

PPS holds its last “meat market” school choice fair.

PK8 comes to a boil

Two years after a rushed decision to eliminate middle schools (in some neighborhoods; the west side gets to keep theirs, evidently) parents come together to demand a better deal for their middle-school children.

Custodians stave off 30% pay cut

Custodians and food service workers are made to feel good about taking a 3-year wage freeze.

Ivy charter withdraws application

With the board poised to approve their application on appeal (with some modifications), the organizers of the Ivy Charter School withdraw at the last minute. The other three applications in the cycle were rejected and did not appeal.

Smith’s first budget: where’s the equity?

Carole Smith’s first budget makes a few tentative steps toward equity, but does nothing to balance enrollment or help schools hardest hit by the transfer policy.

March 2008

Smith forms PK8 action team

Two years after beginning implementation, the district decides to start planning for it.

April 2008

Deep cuts to poor schools

As community members start to study the budget, deep cuts are discovered at our poorest schools, putting the lie to the “overarching” goal of equity.

Gates “small schools” make no progress

Touted as a salve for the “achievement gap,” our poorest schools were carved up into academies. New data show these schools continue to have the worst dropout rates in Portland.

May 2008

Jefferson Students walk out, protest lack of progress

Frustrated at staffing cuts, and a continuing lack of breadth and depth in course offerings, Jefferson students walk out, demanding curriculum, teachers, AP classes, language classes, College Center, and
other programs.

School board funds new books for middle schoolers, even as many schools lack library staff

Some parents question the timing and priority of the move.

PK8 team addresses some concerns

PK8 schools get some basic guarantees, but district won’t commit to library staff for nearly a third of PK8 schools. Transition remains in crisis, but at a lower boil.

June 2008

Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

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

Oregonian covers small schools

In an A1 story in the Sunday Oregonian, reporters Betsy Hammond and Lisa Grace Lednicer write about the failure of the Gates-funded “small schools” to bridge the “achievement gap.”

But it is quixotic to form policy around outcomes, as former PPS school board member Steve Buel has pointed out.

Over the summer

Teachers and students get summer vacation, but the school board never sleeps. They meet all summer, and three of them will be entering the final year of their term (Henning, Ryan and Sargent). Will the transfer policy be addressed in a meaningful way? Will we finally figure out how to talk about high schools, school mergers (closures) and facilities, all in one fell swoop? Will anybody present a vision for what PPS will look like in five years? Stay tuned….

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

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Petition for PK8 funding gap

In April, the PPS PK8 Action Team presented a lengthy list of unfunded operational needs for the ongoing PK8 transition.* These needs range from critical educational resources like age-appropriate library materials and staff and computer labs, to basic facilities infrastructure like age-appropriate rest rooms and classroom furniture.

If left unfunded, PPS will embark on the third year of the PK8 transition without a commitment to minimally adequate funding, and a full cycle of middle schoolers will have been short-changed.

Parents, teachers and community members from all over Portland have expressed concern for our middle school students. The district, having embarked on this transition, has a moral and ethical responsibility to fully commit to basic operational funding.

Several ideas for filling this gap have been floated with the district, including:

  • Cap administrative wages for one year. (All non-represented district level and principals etc.) Savings: $1.18 million
  • Reallocate Non-Instructional Personal Professional Services Fund. Savings up to $3.63 million.
  • Reallocate to spend Internal Services Contingency Fund. Savings up to $3 million.
  • Local option levy
  • Postpone curriculum adoption
  • spend more of the levy this year
  • Spend from the reserve.

These suggestions have been met with varying degrees of coolness from district administration, the budget office and school board members. But the fact remains that we have money in the budget that could be moved on a one-time, emergency basis to cover this critical gap.

Please join me in signing a petition (download and print a hard copy [111KB PDF], or sign electronically online) with the following wording:

  • Petition summary and background: Portland Public Schools (PPS) middle school students in PK-8 schools are facing their third year of critical operational budget shortfalls. PPS has committed to providing science labs and algebra for all students for 2008-09, but still has a budget gap of more than a million dollars to provide age-appropriate libraries, computer labs, and basic facilities support for our adolescent students.
  • Action petitioned for: We, the undersigned, are concerned citizens who urge our Portland Public Schools leaders to act now to fully and immediately fund the critical operational budget shortfall for the PK-8 transition. This should include age-appropriate library materials and staff, restroom facilities, computer labs, white boards, and furniture for all students in grades 6-8, regardless of the type of location of their school.

Phone calls, e-mails and letters to school board members and the superintendent’s office, as well as citizen testimony at school board meetings are always helpful, too.

Update, May 27, 4:50 pm: By popular demand, the petition is now available online as well as the hard copy linked above.

Update, May 30, 7:30 am: Some of the critical issues on this petition have been addressed, but library staffing remains critical. Nearly a third of our PK8 schools — eight of 30 — have no budget for library staff for 2008-09.

*Unfortunately, the list of unfunded operational needs was incomplete (not all schools have been inventoried), and items were not categorized as ongoing or one-time. A more rigorous, detailed accounting of the gap was requested in mid-May, but has not yet been produced. With current information from the district, it is impossible to know the full extent of the funding gap. Estimates of the gap range from $2 million to $6 million.

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

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Another parent on cuts at Ockley Green

Here’s another letter from an Ockley Green parent regarding cuts at the school for next year. –ed.

I am an Ockley Green parent. I have two children at the school.

Ockley is an outstanding, wonderful school that has done a remarkable job, thanks to Mr. Malone and his staff. My children are flourishing, even though they have vastly different needs. My daughter is on an IEP, and at Ockley she has an experienced, dedicated staff. My son is very bright. At Ockley his gifts have been recognized and challenged. This is a school where 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

These cuts are unconscionable. Higher income schools may be able to make up for such cuts in private fundraising but this is not true for Ockley. School choice is a facade and has created a serious situation of segregation. Low-income families can’t afford the transportation and lack the savvy to play the system. The result is a city where white and wealthier families take their resources into schools outside their neighborhood while minority and poor students remain in schools facing the impossible challenge of higher costs and budget cuts.

My son’s track meet this morning was an illustration of this fact. The Ockley and King teams were almost exclusively African-American and poor. Schools like Chapman were almost all white and wealthier. This segregation carried to the bleachers, and will carry on for the better part of these children’s lives, as white children benefit from educational opportunities denied to minority children through a program disguised as school “choice.” Sitting in the bleachers I reflected how I could have been living in the deep south for the clear color lines our schools perpetuate. But this Portland, Oregon. We are supposed to be progressive and equal opportunity.

The cuts being made demonstrate, once again, that this is not true. Our children deserve better.

Sincerely,
Rene Denfeld
Parent

Rene Denfeld is a writer and parent of two Ockley Green students.

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Ockley Green parent letter

The following is a letter sent from Ockley Green parent Sia to Superintendent Carole Smith. The letter referenced in the first paragraph decries cuts at Ockley for 08-09, including the digital media program, one P.E. teacher, and two of four eighth grade teachers. –ed.

Dear Superintendent Smith:

I have read the letter from Jamie Malloy. It’s ironic, because yesterday I was talking a Jefferson parent that was trying to convince us that we could stay in Portland Public Schools for high school. At great expense to our low-income family, my daughter will be attending a private Catholic high school.

It is clear to me and many other parents that the district plans to continue the benign neglect of Jefferson Cluster schools. It is also clear that District will continue to practice de facto segregation through the school transfer policy. I just learned that students who participate in the Jefferson Dancers will NOT be required to attend Jefferson high school in the 2008-09 school year, as had been previously reported. PPS continues to cater to families with the wherewithal to participate in the school choice program. Families that can afford to transport children across town and away from their neighborhood schools. The environmental impact of this policy on this city, with regard to traffic congestion, pollution is “not okay”. The pitting of families against one another for “lottery winnings” as one parenting blog calls it is “not okay”. Continuing to give children in schools that are primarily attended by children of color, the short end of the stick regarding resources and programming is unconscionable.

Finding a supportive learning environment for my bright, stubborn, talented Afro-Latina daughter, has been a challenge at Portland Public School since we moved here in 1st grade. We have tried the school choice policy, but found that the policy is inherently flawed. The school choice program has become about middle-class and upper class parents choosing to have more resources and less economic and/or ethnic “diversity” for their children. Children of color are not always welcomed and supported in these environments. Meanwhile, parents of children of color that are low-income are selecting to forego basic needs and paying for school. Holy Redeemer draws from the Jefferson cluster and one-third of its students are on free and reduced lunch. My daughter, attended HRCS for 4th and 5th grade until I could no longer afford it. After a disastrous year at a focus option middle school, we were blessed to find Ockley Green.

Mr. Malone, Dr. Matier and Ms. Scheetz before her, have created an environment for our children that is loving, supportive and holds them accountable. My daughter has blossomed at Ockley Green. She has been making sure that she will receive high school credit for the algebra class. She didn’t even like math before now. She believes in herself and so does her school. As the parent of a middle schooler, there are days where you’re not sure how it will turn-out. Mr. Malone and his staff have demonstrated confidence in these children, when we parents sometimes have had our doubts. As a parent, I do everything I can to make our support staff, teachers and administrators know how special and precious these past two years have been. Ockley Green is the best school we have attended in Portland Public Schools. We tried the Family Cooperative School, Beach Neighborhood School and daVinci Arts Middle. My daughter was treated so poorly at some of those schools that I worried that she would lose her love for school that she brought to Portland.

I can’t even list the wonderful ways that the many Ockley staff that have reached out to our family. It is so special and unusual in your school system. I am so bitter about the cuts.

I am angry, hurt and pretty despondent that you continue to decimate the only school that is actually trying to accomplish what the mission of the District is supposed to be. I wish I could properly articulate how horrible what you have decided to perpetuate is, but language fails me. Much like you and the School Board continue to fail our children.

Tearfully,

Sia

Sia is the parent of an Ockley Green graduate.

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