Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

9:09 pm

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?

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

filed under: Equity, High Schools, Jefferson High, Madison High, Marshall High, Roosevelt High

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6 Responses

  1. Comment from Nicole:

    Steve Rawley,
    Unless you have concrete evidence, please stop spreading the rumor that PPS has agreed to merge Jefferson’s two main academies for 2008-09.

    After over 2 years of protest about Vicki Phillips’ small schools reforms from the Jefferson community, district staff (Leslie Rennie-Hill) announced in January that they were considering a merger of the academies. However, the announcement was apparently a publicity stunt for the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson because since then the district has not followed up at all. PPS advertised Jefferson as 4 small academies throughout the high school transfer period, and continues to do so. The course guide was also written for separate academies.

    The Jefferson site council did everything it needed to do to make the merger official but received no confirmation or follow-up from the district. The list of schools on the PPS website still lists 4 academies for Jefferson even though Jefferson folks have requested for almost 6 months that they change it to reflect the merger of the Academy of Arts & Tech and Academy of Science & Tech into one Jefferson High School. See for yourself,

    PPS has NOT followed through on the proposal to merge the Jefferson academies. They are keeping the school in a state of limbo while students continue to transfer out and the school dies a slow and painful death.

    I hope the Madison community has better luck than we have had at getting the district to listen.

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Expecting PPS Web sites to have current, accurate information is your first mistake.

    If the district goes back on their word, I’ll be the first to apologize for spreading “rumors.” Until then, I intend to continue to remind them publicly of their commitment.

  3. Comment from Nicole:

    I don’t expect the PPS website to completely accurate. But misrepresenting the entire structure of a high school is not an oversight, they have received repeated requests to update the info to reflect a merger of the Jefferson academies. Also, all kinds of other info on the list of PPS schools has been updated for next year, including for the Young Men’s Academy and Young Men’s Academy, just not the merger of the coed academies at Jefferson. Believing that the misinformation on the PPS website is accidental is your mistake.

    Reminding the district of their commitment would be great, giving them credit for accomplishing something that they haven’t done only makes it less likely that they will do anything about it.

  4. Comment from whitebuffalo:


    Your last sentence is the keeper: “Remind the district of their commitment(s)…”

    There are far too many of these at the moment. Facilities, programs, attendance areas, equipment, on and on.

    I don’t have an over-arching point here just that we all seem to be making this same point. We keep harping on the district but I don’t see any movement. I wish there was a higher authority to grieve our case to.

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    In a recent discussion I had with Zeke Smith – he is always pleasant – he suggested the equity issue had something to do with outcomes. I explained that this type of thinking was absurd since a school district controls what takes place in the schools, not the student outcomes which are determined by huge factors, only some of which are related to the schools. After all PPS can not change the child’s parents, the number of books in the home, their extended families, the attitude of their most influential friends, nor any of the other myriad of things that influence their attitude towards school. But PPS can somewhate equalize the offerings and opportunities available for students. That is where the focus needs to be when dealing with equity.
    The small school argument is very important to creating equity — the definition of which, by the way, PPS does not have yet. Better get one though before we work on it — and we darn well need to leave outcomes out of it. Geez.

    I bring this up here because it typifies the type of approach which stagnates the district. We need more art, well we need more counselors too. So nothing moves. We need to spend more time on making sure kids in middle school who can hardly read get it, well we need to work at early childhood education. So nothing moves. We need to have more and better technology, well we need to have better maintainance. So nothing moves. The alternative arguments become the roadblocks to the original arguments. And since there is always, in a district like Portland, alternative arguments the roadblocks succeed. Watch for this. It is becoming as pervasive as the old “research shows” arguments which brought you the K-8’s, the testing morass, and the small high schools. Of course, we all know educational “research” is pretty much all, well, very close to all, bogus and not really research. Certainly, nothing close to what passes for scientific RESEARCH. But the lines get blurred where they should not.

  6. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Buel, thank you.