Lessons from the Young Men’s Academy

11:08 pm

Official news that the Young Men’s Academy (YMA) at Jefferson High School will close at the end of this school year is certainly no surprise. But rather than point fingers over obvious mistakes, we should pause and reflect on the lessons to be learned.

Jefferson, Oregon’s only majority black high school, is emblematic of how Portland Public Schools treats its black students. No other high school in Portland offers as few classes as Jefferson — 34 classes currently listed (not counting dance classes), with no music, chemistry, physics, calculus, world languages other than Spanish, or a single A.P. class — and no other high school has experimented with gender segregation or uniforms.

The first lesson we should take away from the failed experiment in not just gender segregation but also “smallness” taken to the extreme, is that size matters. This is a lesson PPS needs to learn system-wide. If we are unwilling or unable to pay for it, we shouldn’t design it into the system.

The young women at the Jefferson Young Women’s Academy (YWA), though faring better than their counterparts at the YMA, are still suffering from unfunded smallness. They are the only high school campus in the district without a staffed library. They also are cut off from the after-school programs at Jefferson, with no transportation provided to and from their satellite campus two miles away.

We should also remember that both YMA and YWA have so far served mostly middle grade students — high school grades have been phased in as students age up — and that the Jefferson cluster does not have a middle school.

By far and away the most important lesson to learn from the failure of Jefferson’s YMA is one of fundamental fairness. Why is the choice of middle grade students in the Jefferson cluster between K-8 or gender-segregated 6-12? Why doesn’t the Jefferson cluster (and Madison, too) have a comprehensive middle school option, like every other cluster in Portland?

Or, to put it more bluntly: Why do we insist on treating black students so much differently (that is, worse) than everybody else?

We should know by now that endless promises, experiments and reconfigurations have only made Jefferson weaker and less desirable to the greater community — declining enrollment figures don’t lie. More of the same may be seen as confirmation of the suspicion heard frequently around the neighborhood: that PPS wants Jefferson (and its black students) to fail.

In the end, what we should take away from this particular failed experiment is that Jefferson students need what all students need: a rich and interesting curriculum, taught by experienced teachers, with opportunity in their neighborhood on par with every other neighborhood in the district.

Portland Public Schools has the facilities, and, more importantly, the neighborhood student populations, to support comprehensive high schools and middle schools in all nine clusters. But the district’s twin experiments in “smallness” and “choice” have led to a system wildly out of balance and shamefully unfair to the students most in need of a comprehensive education.

Perhaps the announcement of YMA’s demise on the day before a historic election augurs a new day, one in which black students in Portland, Ore. have the same kinds of schools in their neighborhoods as white students, and they are no longer subject to ill-conceived, under-funded experiments and second-tier opportunity.

One can only hope.

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

filed under: Curriculum, Demographics, Equity, High Schools, Jefferson High, Libraries, Segregation, Small Schools, Transfer Policy

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16 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Hope. But don’t hold your breath. Solid education is the answer for all children. Class offerings to inspire children of all backgrounds and abilities. Real help for children who are struggling. Healthful activities to engage students at all levels. Orderly, challenging schools which teach what children need not what politics creates. Education not testing, understanding not condemnation, and hope not indifference. Let’s build a model of what education should be and then work towards it. We can do so much better.

  2. Comment from Zarwen:

    Won’t keeping the YWA open put PPS in violation of federal regulations? How do they get around this without offering a corresponding program for the boys? Or maybe I should be asking the bigger question: why has the YWA been able to attract students when the YMA could not?

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    PPS thinks Title IX only applies to girls. But they’re wrong; it is actually gender-neutral: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”. Sounds like having a girls-only academy but closing the boys is a Title IX violation. Of course, having an all-boys school with radically less opportunity could also be seen as a violation.

    Then again, PPS has arguably been in flagrant violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for a long time, so what’s the big deal with a little Title IX thrown into the mix?

    I suspect an Obama Dept. of Ed. will be more receptive to this type of complaint than Bush’s. Unless he makes the mistake of appointing Vicki Phillips Sec. of Ed.

  4. Comment from howard:

    The current state of Jefferson HS is not “emblematic of how Portland treats its black students” Look at the greater number of black students attending other high schools within PPS.

    Has anyone given any thought to combining YMA and YWA?

  5. Comment from mneloa:

    I remember “Girl’s Poly” and Benson Polytechnic” in the late sixties…The really smart girls did go to “Girl’s Poly” as did those who seriously wanted to go into nursing, etc., and did not mind the stigma attached to an all girl school…It seems to me that when Benson was forced to admit females, Girl’s Poly dwindled away. (Benson was only for boys I believe up till then)
    Wonder if there are any parallels here.

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Howard, more African American students are assigned to Jefferson than are assigned to Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson combined.

    Many of them have transferred to comprehensive high schools (mainly to Benson and Grant), but many of them cannot (transfer slots into comprehensive high schools have been slim to none in recent years) or will not (many families do not feel safe or comfortable sending their black children across town to white schools). Even with the massive out-transfers from Jefferson, more African American students go there than to any other high school in Portland.

    The basic statistical facts* are that black students in Portland are overwhelmingly unlikely to be assigned to comprehensive secondary schools, while white, middle class students are overwhelmingly likely to be assigned to comprehensive schools.

    Jefferson is, in fact, emblematic of how PPS treats black students.

    *2007-2008 enrollment data; current data not yet available

  7. Comment from howard:

    Steve: I respectfully suggest you brush up on the history Of Jefferson HS. Jefferson HS is only emblematic of the way all its students are currently treated.

    Since 1964 Jeff has seen its diverse student population of 1,800 students and its repution as Portland’s top high school eroded through processes of systematic interference by PPS administrators/board and benign neglect.

    I salute your efforts to change conditions in the Jefferson cluster. However, use of the race card to help accomplish your ends does not ring true to those who know the history.

  8. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’m well aware of Jefferson’s not-too-distant past as a “desirable” school. I’ve written about the modest strides toward equity that were taken under the Black United Front’s 1980 desegregation plan, back when Steve Buel was on the board. Clearly that’s not what I’m talking about.

    Jefferson today is emblematic of how PPS treats its black students.

    Let me be more direct and clear: Portland Public Schools treats black students (and Hispanic students, and poor children of every ethnicity) as second-class citizens. The incontrovertible evidence is the lack of comprehensive secondary schools in the neighborhoods where these students are concentrated, and the availability of these schools in neighborhoods where white, middle class students are concentrated.

    Jefferson High School is a perfect example (“emblem”) of this.

    I talk about race because it is demonstrably a factor (the statistics I cited bear me out on this), even if it’s a proxy for the greater underlying issue of class.

    Race is a factor. If you don’t get this, I submit it is you who misunderstands the history of race relations and education in this city.

  9. Comment from Beth Slovic:

    Under Bush there was a rule change that allows a girls’ academy to exist even without a complementary boys’ academy. There are all sorts of additional rules complicating this scenario. I’ll look for the rule number …

  10. Comment from howard:

    Steve R: In response to your “I submit it is you who misunderstands the history of race relations and education in this city.” Former Baltimore Orioles manager responded when asked “What is the most important thing you have learned after all these years”. His response: “Everything I learned after I thought I knew it all.”

  11. Comment from Beth Slovic:

    Here’s the link to the 2006 changes to Title IX:


    And here’s an important passage:

    “Under these requirements, as described in the proposed regulations, the recipient must treat male and female students in an evenhanded manner in implementing its objective, and it must always provide a substantially equal coeducational class or extracurricular activity in the same subject or activity. (Proposed Sec. 106.34(b)(1)(ii), (iii)).

    The proposed amendments provided that, in addition to the required substantially equal coeducational class or extracurricular activity in the same subject or activity, a substantially equal single-sex class or extracurricular activity for students of the other sex MAY be required to ensure nondiscriminatory implementation.”

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Thanks for the correction, Beth. The Bush administration’s rules changes definitely would appear to allow YWA to continue without YMA.

    Howard, I don’t claim to know it all, but I sure as hell know that black, brown and poor students get treated like crap in PPS. I can cite many, many examples, but Jefferson is the one example most people seem to get right away.

  13. Comment from Lakeitha:

    I agree that black, brown and poor students get treated like crap in PPS. If we really believe that in this “Post Racial” era in America that Black, Brown and Poor Children are not getting the short end of the stick, we have been hoodwinked.

  14. Comment from howard:

    I too agree that black, brown and poor students (lacking assertive support) get treated like crap in PPS. In most schools and districts that also applies to children of affluence.

    From:”Jefferson, Oregon’s only majority black high school, is emblematic of how Portland Public Schools treats its black students.”

  15. Comment from JerryM:

    Black and brown students may be getting overlooked, but they are being overlooked at almost every school. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that the black students at Grant are doing SO much better than the black students at Jefferson because they have more AP offerings. Black students taking AP classes at Grant range are like 20+ max. Sometimes it isn’t just about what PPS provides, but also the environment in which it is being provided.

  16. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Right again, JerryM; in fact the PPS data show unequivocally that students who transfer typically don’t do better, even if they are transferring to a school with more opportunity than their neighborhood school.

    I’ve advocated for years now for equity of opportunity at the neighborhood level. We know students do better when they stay in their neighborhood; imagine how much better they could do if we had equal opportunity in those neighborhood schools that have been starved of enrollment and funding for so long.