Size matters

11:30 pm

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.

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

filed under: Data Crunch, Equity, Features, High Schools, Jefferson High, K-8 Transistion, Madison High, Marshall High, Program cuts, Roosevelt High, Small Schools, Transfer Policy

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15 Responses

  1. Comment from jalex:

    Franklin is now verging towards your own definition of “redzone”. Kellogg now closed, an 8th grade “academy” housed at Franklin last year, and Creston now K-8. Student population now smaller than Benson at 1018.

    Mt. Tabor, supposedly a feeder school solely for Franklin, has at least 60% of its students attend Grant or Cleveland.

    Please start including Franklin in your advocacy for struggling high schools.

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Jalex, if we look at high schools in isolation, Franklin is definitely in the same category. Last year, it was at 1,233 with an area population of 1,431, or an enrollment deficit of 14% compared to neighborhood population.

    But the Franklin cluster as a whole more than made up for it, especially at Mt. Tabor MS (588 students with 388 MS students in the attendance area), Sunnyside (542 students with an area population of 304), Atkinson (524 students, 271 area) and Woodstock (407 students, 304 area).

    The patterns at Franklin HS are interesting, in that it loses net enrollment of 140 to Cleveland (178 Franklin students went to Cleveland, and 38 Cleveland students went to Franklin last year) but gains even more from Marshall (219).

    With enrollment down even more at Franklin this year, families have reason to be concerned for its future. PPS policies are not kind to schools that have lost enrollment for whatever reason.

    Welcome to the red zone.

  3. Comment from jalex:

    Yes, Franklin is surviving due to transfers, especially from Marshall. Not an ideal situation for either school.

    Woodstock and Hosford now appear to be Cleveland feeders, this from PPS website:

    For 2007-08, the following applies to this catchment area:
    1. Students in grades 8 – 12 go to Franklin.
    2. Students in grade 6 and 7 go to Hosford and then will go to Cleveland.
    3. Students in grades K – 5 go to Woodstock, then Hosford, then Cleveland.

    Atkinson with its Spanish immersion seems to shunt kids to to Hosford and then to Cleveland via the Spanish immersion route. Hosford kids, when it was a Franklin feeder, could go to Cleveland using the same route, I believe. Cleveland has both a Spanish and Mandarin immersion program, mirroring Hosford’s offerings.

    Sunnyside is jointly Cleveland and Franklin. Most go to Cleveland as far as I can tell.

    Richmond, now as a Japanese immersion program is no longer a neighborhood school, though the neighborhood kids go to Mt. Tabor and then to Grant.

    Also according to the PPS website, neighborhood population is 1431 for 2007-08, with 874 attending Franklin (59%). 271 go to other PPS schools, 165 to focus options/programs. These numbers are based on Franklin’s supposed 2007 enrollment of 1233. I heard from the school last year the total was actually 1130 with 110 8th grades from Kellogg. So 200 less than what PPS has down officially in 2007. Now the 2008 number I have is 1018, with the same two official feeders of Sunnyside and Mt. Tabor.

    That 200 student drop means either there are fewer transfers from Marshall (I don’t think so) or more kids are going elsewhere, making the percentage of kids in the cluster actually attending Franklin probably now well below the 50% mark.

    Side note: it appears Cleveland is actually trying to play down the actual numbers that attend, possibly to keep them out of trouble with the OSAA, which will change their sports classification (1521 is the threshold). I have heard as high a 1560 this year (semi-official 1518), which would make Cleveland the same size as Grant.

    So yes, Franklin looks to me more redzone than even I initially thought. This problem could start to be solved simply with more special program equity between the two schools. And why does Grant have the Japanese immersion program when Richmond and Tabor are in the Franklin cluster?

  4. Comment from anon:

    The red zones would be more accurately called redlined zones.

  5. Comment from susan:

    Would someone be able to shed some light on the Madison cluster in context of small schools? Aren’t Rigler and Scott getting a double-whammy for being reorg’d into K-8 and being too big for that configuration (8th graders sent to Madison)? Can these two schools compete at any level with either traditional middle school offerings or even with the other K-8s that can use FTE focused on the 6th-8th graders when these schools only have 6th-7th graders? Sara, these would be questions I would be interested in seeing addressed when the K-8 team is able to post more information on the district website – i.e., how are K-7s being supported in terms of equity offerings?

  6. Comment from Sara A:

    Some very interesting points raised. I can assure you, these are topics that are fully recognized, and are alive and well in the budget allocation review work that is underway at the district level that I mentioned in my first post. It’s been a few years since we systematically looked at the FTE allocation formula. A lot has changed in terms of school configurations, size and enrollment. It’s definitely high time to do it, and that’s what we are doing. I know we can count on all of you to stay tuned!

  7. Comment from ohme:

    Great article Steve! I hope the district wakes up to see the mess that unrestricted transfers have made in our district. Every high school student in this district should be attending their neighborhood school. It is madness that parents choose to move to a neighborhood, but then not send their children to the school in the neighborhood, and that we have a district that ENCOURAGES this practice.

    I am waiting for the district to take the next step and stop the tranfers for freshmen, just like you suggested. If they can foist k-8’s on us with no input or feedback, they can certainly change the transfer system and restore equity to our district.

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Sara, nice to see that having equtable education in each neighborhood is “alive and well” in the budget process. I assume then we can see fully equal offerings at Marshall, Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson next year. That will be grand!

  9. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Couple of points.

    I want to be clear that I don’t think smallness is a bad thing. I think it would be a great thing… if we paid for it.

    But we don’t have the money to pay for it, so we’re making the students who don’t transfer pay for it in lost opportunity.

    The truth is, we can’t afford to pay for it this way, either.

    I’m glad to hear the district is working hard on the funding formula (even if it comes 3-5 years after smallness was designed into the system).

    But as I said in the post, shifting existing funds around to pay for smallness means schools that don’t suffer from smallness (Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln, Wilson, and the remaining middle schools) will be “equalized down” in order to “equalize up” the rest.

    Is that really what we want to do? Will families at these schools tolerate program cuts to pay for programs at Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Roosevelt and the K8s?

    That’s why we need to look at balancing enrollment. It’s not a zero-sum game; in fact it’s a win all around.

    Everybody knows that Cleveland, Grant and Lincoln have significant over-crowding issues. They can solve that problem and keep their rich curriculum.

    The current system just isn’t in anybody’s best interest, as far as I can see.

  10. Comment from jalex:

    Never thought of it this way, but there is a direct correlation between size and the percentage of free and reduced lunch students in PPS. The large, comprehensive high schools are all the one’s with the least number of free and reduced lunch kids:

    Benson — 56.6 percent free and reduced lunch
    Cleveland — 23.4 percent
    Franklin — 48.0 percent
    Grant — 22.4 percent
    Jefferson — 72.6 percent
    Lincoln — 7.5 percent
    Madison — 64.4 percent
    Marshall — 75.0 percent (estimate for three campuses)
    Roosevelt — 75.0 percent (estimate for three campuses)
    Wilson — 16.5 percent

  11. Comment from Ohme:

    Good point jalex…it would be interesting to see what those numbers would be without the transfer system. The trend is that parents with more education, and therefore more economic advantages, tend to be the ones who sign their children up for transfers. If ALL of the students at Roosevelt, Jefferson, Marshall, and Madison were required to attend to their home school, I predict those numbers would even out to about 50-50…an ideal situation. Obviously the district is ok with this economic segregation.

    On another note, I am product of a PPS high school. I attended a “red zone” school in the late 80’s – early 90’s. This was before NCLB and the liberal transfer policy.

    At that time, we all attended our neighborhood schools. You could apply for Benson, with solid test scores and letters of rec. You could audition for the Jefferson Dancers. That was it. We all went to our neighborhood school.

    Consequently, we all had the choice of a full array of electives, advanced math, advanced science, and 3 langauges to choose from. We took AP classes, had a speech team and a drama program. We also had auto shop, enough students to fill all sports teams, and several computer labs.

    Of course, we all took the same classes as freshman. We were “tracked” so that we were with similar students in either advanced, regular, or somewhat remedial classes so that all student were being challenged at their level in a particular subject. This naturally happened as students got older, as some moved onto physics, calculus and French 7-8. But the opportunity for those classes were available to all.

    It is amazing how well this system worked. Those who were inclined went on to higher education: Stanford, Brown, University of Portland, U of O.
    We had all the opportunity to discover what we wanted from life, be it college, career, trade school, or parenthood!

    When did this system break? How are YOU, members of the school board, going to fix it!?!

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Jalex and Ohme, this was documented a year ago by PPS, though not widely publicized. Maps were produced in a board committee meeting showing that open transfer enrollment segregates by race and class.

    Beth Slovic published these maps on Willamette Week’s blog.

    The numbers then (based on 2006 enrollment) showed increases in students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, as well as increases in non-white percentages in each of the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters.

    Ruth Adkins was quoted as saying “We’re concentrating poverty and segregating by race.” But a year later, nothing has been done to address this increased segregation, or, much more disturbing, the fact that we’re concentrating ethnic minorities and poverty-affected children in schools with dramatically less academic opportunity.

    This is truly one of the greatest shames of our city.

  13. Comment from ohme:

    Thank you Steve…it is unbelievable that the school board can acknowledge this fact…and then do NOTHING about it. How do they sleep at night? What are the board members worried is going to happen if they make the move to end transfers…other than an more balanced high school system we can be proud of! I find it interesting as well that this transfer process does not seem to effect k-5 to the same degree…does it?

  14. Comment from marcia:

    “All of our schools that are small … face a massive struggle to provide a robust program with our current resources.”
    Well really now? What is being done to fix it…???All the families who are involved are transferring out, and I basically think the K8 program has ruined our school. We used to have a cohesive program, and a united staff…Now all the atention goes to 7/8 grade issues, and the primary grades are ignored. There is nothing in place for middle school. And the work load for teachers has increased due to more and more duty time as more kids are packed together on the playground and at lunch time. the principal looks like he/she has aged 50 years because his job has tripled with no support. Get a clue, Sara Allan and all you others in charge…this is NOT WORKING!!!

  15. Comment from np:

    I agree, Marcia. The k-8 reconfiguration isn’t working. We’ve decided to homeschool until district “leaders” fix the messes they have created from the program changes, school closures, and freaky boundaries for “neighborhood” schools. We’re even starting a savings account for private school since we’re not optimistic that the situation will get better before our child is ready for middle school in 5 years.