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February 10th, 2010 12:00 am BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

Class Actions

Why Portland has waited so long for high-school redesign.

THE PARENT TRAP: Mothers and fathers of kids in the Grant High cluster voice their concerns at a Feb. 3 meeting.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

Almost two years ago, a consultant to Portland Public Schools offered a warning as the district began a campaign to equalize programs at its 10 high schools.

Bill DeJong, an Ohio consultant who wanted to help lead PPS’s efforts, told district administrators in March 2008 they were further than they thought from finalizing a plan for balancing enrollment and standardizing course offerings.

“Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that ‘planning for a long time’ is not the same thing as ‘long range planning,’” he wrote.

DeJong, whose blunt words annoyed district leaders, didn’t get the six-figure high-school redesign contract he wanted with PPS. But 23 months later, the district risks acting out DeJong’s wheel-spinning, worst-case scenario.

The reason? The district’s proposed high-school redesign, which may call for closing two or three neighborhood high schools, is incredibly complex. But it’s also driven by middle-class politics as much as what’s best educationally for the 11,000 students currently enrolled in the district’s high schools.

PPS’s success as an urban district is often linked to the fact that a high percentage of middle-class parents send their kids to the district’s schools, a rarity in many midsize and large U.S. cities. But equalizing schools means the children of politically powerful parents from the district’s best schools today stand to lose teachers and funding so PPS can boost the lower-performing schools. And those parents are now organizing to defend their children’s interests, even though PPS has made no decisions.

“In the absence of a clear plan, they’re expressing their concerns about protecting the programs that are meeting the needs of most kids,” says Otto Schell of the Oregon PTA. “But we can’t lose track of the need for PPS to create a better way of delivering a program for the kids who aren’t succeeding.”

The evidence of new battle lines could be seen in the cafeteria at Grant High School in inner Northeast Portland on Feb. 3, when hundreds of concerned parents showed up to hear from other parents why PPS might close Grant and how they could help prevent that. (Grant currently enjoys the district’s biggest high-school enrollment, which is one indication of its popularity.)

In 2006, some of the same middle- and upper-middle-class parents who met last week in Grant’s cafeteria blocked district discussions to shutter nearby Hollyrood Elementary, a K-3 school that now still offers kindergarten and first grade. They appear willing to do whatever it takes to prevent Grant’s closure, according to the emails flying on the Google group devoted to the topic.

“[W]hile I understand that we want to be sympathetic to the whole school re design and other schools, etc etc…the truth is…WE ARE HERE TO SAVE GRANT,” Tod Breslau, a parent of four kids in the Grant cluster, recently wrote hundreds of Grant parents. “[L]et’s not make the mistake of the democratic party by acting sympathetic, being disjointed… and going easy on the board.… We need to CRUSH, PROTEST, FILE LAWSUITS, DEMAND, SCREAM & PUMMEL.”

Grant parents’ organizing, which has been matched by similar, quieter efforts at Cleveland and Franklin high schools, appears to have had a real effect already. Just weeks ago, the superintendent’s chief of staff said the board would hear resolutions Feb. 8 that would spell out for the first time the exact number of neighborhood high schools the district would commit to keeping. By extension, the resolution would spell out how many schools the district planned to close.

But Monday, the district presented a different resolution to the board, which PPS says is not a response to parental pressure. The resolution calls for the board to reaffirm the “rationale” for equalizing neighborhood schools. But it doesn’t specify how many schools will close. The board won’t even vote on the measure until March 8.

Board member David Wynde says the district remains on track to implement programmatic changes, whatever they are, in September 2011. For every person who thinks PPS is moving too slowly, there’s another who finds the pace too fast. “We’re trying to find the right balance,” Wynde says.

FACT: In 1982, PPS’s 10 high schools had about 15,000 students, 36 percent more than now.
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