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February 17th, 2010 12:00 am BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

Gathering Storm

Analysis: Portland’s’ high-school redesign is slow and misses the point.

EDUCATIONAL FORECAST: Temperatures are rising in the Portland Public Schools district, but not in a good way.
IMAGE: Jonathan Hill

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith is no “Hurricane Vicki,” a schools chief whose whirlwind tenure in Portland brought hurried decisions and even swifter timelines.

If anything, Vicki Phillips’ successor is more like El Niño—an episodic event that builds over time, brings rising temperatures and ends with long-lasting consequences.

Smith’s proposed redesign of the district’s 10 main high schools is a good example of this slow but troubling pattern.

The problem facing PPS is this: It has too many buildings for the 11,000 students in its high schools. Thirty years ago, it had 15,000 students and the same number of campuses, whose funding depends on the number of pupils enrolled. But rather than tackle the building surplus directly, Smith has framed the redesign as a debate about educational equity. Her goals include reducing the district’s dropout rate of 31 percent to 46 percent, depending on how you calculate it, and narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

One need only look to North Portland’s Jefferson High, with its 435 students, to see how small schools struggle to offer the full range of courses parents and teenagers want.

Two years ago, when PPS began its high-school redesign, it decided it would be too hard to persuade Portlanders simply to close a school. “Because Portland hates that,” Smith says. Instead, she created an expansive public process to discuss the “values” of equity and equal opportunity that Portlanders espouse. In her mind, the process then became “a value-add” rather than a “take-away.” On March 8, the School Board is scheduled to vote on a 10-page resolution that enumerates these values.

The redesign’s terms remain vague. But they wouldn’t result in complete closure of any campus. Instead, two or three neighborhood high schools would reopen as smaller magnet schools known as “focus” schools.

Yet PPS’s high-school redesign is supposed to begin implementation in 2011. And as students wait and wonder what next year will look like at their neighborhood schools, the trouble with PPS is that it can’t articulate well—or hardly at all—how the means of this redesign will help it achieve all those laudable ends of equity and equal opportunity. Shifting students between buildings isn’t enough, although the teachers union calls it an improvement.

“That’s not equity,” says Rebecca Levison, Portland Association of Teachers president. “That’s a math equation.”

That few details about the proposal are available is no accident. The district says it wants to ensure there’s “community buy-in” for the redesign’s most basic elements.

One detail that is available calls for curbing a liberal transfer policy which lets high-school students leave their neighborhood schools to attend others in the district. Since funding follows the student, this “school choice” policy has eroded offerings at some schools—most notably Jefferson High, which keeps about one-quarter of the 1,550 high-school-age students within its attendance boundaries. And it’s led to what some consider overcrowding at others like 1,600-student Grant High, which has 1,450 students living within its boundaries.

Another plan element calls for converting the high schools that are closed into smaller “focus” schools. Those schools would offer different themes like art or environmental science, but not the breadth of programs available at community high schools, like competitive sports.

From these elements emerge many problems.

One is the “focus” schools. Successful focus schools at the primary-grade level—like overcrowded Sunnyside Environmental School and Da Vinci Arts Middle School—have emerged from grassroots efforts led by committed parents and teachers. The opposite is happening with high schools now; the district is leading the effort without clear understanding of the demand. And two years into the process, Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc., with a $30,000 federal grant, is only now surveying Portland teenagers about what themes might interest them.

A second problem relates to the district’s self-imposed desire to redraw neighborhood boundaries to ease economic and racial segregation among schools. PPS’s track record when it comes to that social engineering is poor. When it redrew boundaries to create new K-8 schools under Phillips, schools such as Clarendon-Portsmouth K-8, Astor K-8 and George Middle School became arguably more segregated.

Then there’s a third problem of staffing. PPS’s teacher hiring and assignment process is notoriously cumbersome, despite positive tweaks in 2008. Depending on what themes PPS proposes for its focus schools, it remains unclear if there will be staff to teach the themes. (On the plus side, PPS and the teachers union tentatively agreed Feb. 13 on a new three-year contract after 19 months.)

The degree of uncertainty surrounding the public discussion to date has made Portland parents nervous. They point to Phillips’ hastily executed K-8 conversions as a reason to be skeptical of Smith’s district-led change.

They’re right, in at least one regard. The K-8 reforms’ biggest failure was they came loaded with promises—of increased enrichment courses at the middle grades, higher test scores and improved student behavior. Practical matters like overcrowding at schools like Rigler, the lack of lockers at others like Bridger, and some schools’ inability to provide high-school-level courses to middle-school students continue to overwhelm the gains that have occurred.

Smith may be right when she says coming out and saying high schools must close would have meant more unrest.But it’s also true that the lack of connection between PPS’s goals and its means of trying to reach those goals has let skeptical parents undermine the entire process with a single catchy slogan, “Close the gap, not the schools.” That message now appears on lawn signs, a Facebook page and an online petition calling for abandonment of the process.

That’s not the answer, although one can hardly blame parents for reaching that conclusion.

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