The Portland School Board plans to weigh in next month on a plan that will preserve seven or eight of the district's 10 high schools and convert the remainder into smaller "focus schools."
The idea is to concentrate resources at fewer neighborhood high schools and standardize course offerings at all those schools—except focus schools, which will have specialized curricula. The goal is to ensure students get the same opportunities regardless of where they live.
Now, for example, students at Cleveland High School in inner-Southeast Portland have access to 20 college-level courses. At Marshall High, in outer-Southeast Portland, students have far fewer: four.
But achieving fairness is not always popular, or as School Board member Martín González, an advocate of greater equity, puts it, "Equity means somebody's going to have to give something up."
In an effort to win support for the plan, the district has been holding community meetings with parents to discuss the proposed changes' underlying reasons. Beyond the reduction in neighborhood high schools, another key change would mean students could no longer transfer from their neighborhood high schools to others. Since funding for a school follows the student, the decades-old transfer system has drained some schools of money for teachers, greatly diminishing those schools' ability to offer advanced courses and electives.
Parents, worried about everything from their homes' property values to the possible watering down of their students' curricula, have many pressing questions about the upcoming high school redesign, which would take effect in fall 2011. But so do the people who would be most directly affected: students. On Monday, WW met with about a dozen representatives from Portland high schools and middle schools to ask them what's on their mind. Photos by Tom Martinez
Henry Li, a sophomore at Wilson High School, wonders how confining students to their neighborhood schools will increase equity when Portland neighborhoods are themselves unequal. "It's not going to stay equal," he says. And eliminating the transfer system will take the district "off track," he says.
WW: A June 2006 audit of Portland Public Schools' transfer system showed schools were more segregated than their home neighborhoods. "The District's schools were less diverse in terms of low-income and minority representation than would be the case if all students attended their neighborhood schools," according to the audit by Multnomah County and Portland officials. "We concluded that the transfer system has not increased diversity in schools, but actually reduced it."
Morgan Joyner, a junior at Cleveland High School, says successful programs shouldn't be dismantled.
WW: The plan Superintendent Carole Smith has endorsed (and that the School Board will consider in January) calls for neighborhood high schools of 1,200 to 1,350 students. Cleveland has about 1,500 students. If Cleveland lost 150 to 300 students it also would lose between $750,000 and $1.5 million in annual funding for teachers and programs such as its advanced-placement offerings.
Marshall High, on the other hand, has about 800 students. It would stand to gain between 400 and 550 students—or $2.8 million to $3.9 million to bolster its academic achievement.
McKinley Rodriguez, an eighth grader at Jackson Middle School, asks how equalizing the programs at the different high schools will address the district's low graduation rate of 69 percent and whether the changes will suit the students who aren't graduating. "Are students dropping out because of this inequality?"
WW: The district says it plans to tackle this problem separately but at the same time. It will do this by offering more guidance counselors at every school and "freshman academies" that bring attention to ninth graders, the students most at risk of losing their way.