THREE'S NOT ALLOWED: (L to R) Dani Parker, Yesenia Segovia and Yolanda Jimenez are juniors at one of Marshall's three academies, which are slated for closure. IMAGE: robertdelahanty.net
Sept. 27 was a school day like most others for Dani Parker.
A 16-year-old junior at one of the three small academies that compose Marshall High School in Lents, Parker sat through a bevy of classes last Monday that might intimidate some well-prepared college students.
Her schedule includes Advanced Placement Environmental Science, chemistry and physics in the morning, followed by humanities, calculus and Spanish after lunch.
Parker loves the academic challenge and the social atmosphere.
"There are no cliques—no jocks, no nerds, no geeks," says Parker, talking about Marshall. "Everyone just commingles. We're just laid back, and it's easy to find people that are like you in this school. No one ever says, 'I'm better than you,' because everyone's kind of the same."
The daughter of a building-maintenance coordinator, Parker aspires to be an equine veterinarian. On weekends and after school some days, she earns $9.25 an hour as a lifeguard at Mount Scott Community Center in outer Southeast Portland. She works so she can afford one of her passions: riding horses.
What Parker didn't know as her school day ended Sept. 27 was that she was about to lose one of the most anticipated moments of her high-school experience: a senior year surrounded by her closest friends and teachers she'd known since she was a freshman.
Ten miles from Parker's home, Superintendent Carole Smith was addressing the Portland School Board. Smith announced that Parker's 175-student Pauling Academy—and the two other small schools on the Marshall High campus, 275-student BizTech and 266-student Renaissance Arts—would close in June.
"It all gives me heartburn," Smith says. "I wish we could keep everything alive, but I feel like this is the right landing spot."
That, at least, is the plan under the latest version of Smith's high-school redesign. This proposal—the superintendent's third version since April—follows nearly two years of contentious public meetings on the topic. The previous two variants of her plan called for keeping Marshall open, but Smith says the district's worsening budget forecast now makes that impossible.
On Tuesday, Sept. 28, after learning about the school's possible closure through a Facebook alert on her phone, Parker walked into Marshall and sensed the deflation among her fellow students.
"You could just feel the mood was really sad and angry and confused," says Parker, who wears fluorescent Silly Bandz and rainbow-colored friendship bracelets on one arm and purple eye shadow under her rectangular glasses.
Parker says she never expected district leaders to close her school. But in some respects it was the obvious move. Marshall, whose students are among the most disadvantaged in the district, had no powerful supporters advocating for its survival.
EMPTY SEATS: Two days after the superintendent announced Marshall might close, only one person attended the School Board's work session shown on closed-circuit TV in an overflow room. IMAGE: robertdelahanty.net
"Marshall is the school that's always been picked on with a neighborhood that has a lot of minority and low-income families," Parker says. "But that doesn't mean we're like, 'Go ahead, close us down, we don't care.'"
Two years ago, parents and students in Portland Public Schools faced a set of 10 high schools with vastly unequal offerings. Those schools differed widely in their student populations, with a high of 1,600 at Grant and a low of 435 at Jefferson. And they varied in the number and variety of advanced academic classes, largely according to the wealth of their respective neighborhoods.
To remedy this, Smith embarked on redesigning the district's high schools. She said the goal was to raise the high schools' persistently low graduation rate of 53 percent and to give students better opportunities for more rigorous classes in their own neighborhoods.
And she said she'd do that without closing any of the district's 10 main high schools.
"I have seen no evidence that we will be able to effectively improve student achievement or graduation rates by shutting a building," Smith told the City Club of Portland in September 2008.
The proposal the superintendent unveiled last week to shut down Marshall comes as a surprise, then. And that's not just because Smith once pledged to keep all schools open.
Demanding higher educational standards and better public schools has become something of a national pastime, as evidenced by the enormous attention focused on a new film documentary about public education, Waiting for "Superman," which opens in Portland on Friday (see here).
Freeing kids from failing schools takes on greater urgency seemingly every day. And it was that urgency to do better by all of Portland's students regardless of neighborhood that underpinned the high-school redesign.
Yet Marshall, the one campus Smith will close entirely under her new plan, is a school that by several measures works. In fact, last year, all three of the small academies at Marshall met the federal No Child Left Behind Act's strict standards for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, a feat only two other district high-school campuses accomplished in 2010—Lincoln and Franklin high schools.
"We're closing 60 percent of the schools that met AYP," says Dave Hamilton, principal at Marshall's Pauling Academy. "It does make you shake your head a little bit."
Portland Public Schools set out dozens of extra chairs at its regular School Board meeting on Monday, Sept. 27, suggesting that school district officials expected a crowd whose size would be proportional to the weight of the district's news about Marshall.
They had good reason to believe this.
Previous iterations of the superintendent's plan—first released in April, then revised and re-released in June, before Smith called for a three-month summer break from deliberations—provoked huge outcries of opposition from different quarters.
In April, for example, Smith initially proposed transforming Benson High in Kerns from a four-year, career-training school for more than 1,000 students into a two-year, part-time program for 800 students.
The idea was to curtail programs at Benson and funnel more resources to the other remaining campuses. But protests erupted from current and former students at Benson, including A.C. Green, the retired NBA basketball player.
PROTEST THRONGS: Benson High students staged a walkout in April to protest the first plan. IMAGE: Peter Griffin
The day after Smith made her initial proposal April 26, Benson students staged a midday walkout with the support of many teachers. "IS THIS GOOD FOR THE STUDENT OR EASIER FOR YOU???" one student's poster blared. Two weeks later, hundreds more students marched from Benson in inner Northeast Portland to PPS's headquarters near the Rose Quarter. "A Benson diploma is not a PPS diploma," Steve Olczak, Benson's principal, boasted at the time. "It's a step above."
But Benson wasn't Smith's only sticking point.
Jefferson High School, long the most obvious emblem of Portland's academic underachievement, had so declined in popularity over the past few years that only about 435 students attended the Humboldt neighborhood school in 2009-10. That's less than half the 900 students who attended a decade earlier.
Smith had argued that in order to offer the full range of academic programs all students should get, high schools needed about 1,350 students apiece. Yet in April she announced she was willing to bend her own guidelines and try to make Jefferson work with only 900 students again.
The School Board balked. And in June a majority of the members were prepared to close Jefferson as a neighborhood high school and instead make it a 400-student "focus" school with a defined theme and narrower course options.
Jefferson might not have been materially different under a focus-option model of 400 students compared with a "comprehensive" high school with only 435 students. But the symbolism attached to taking away Jefferson's neighborhood-school designation, to many supporters, smacked of an admission that PPS wanted to give up on the struggling campus, the state's only majority African-American school.
"This district systematically created the failure we see," Tony Hopson, president of Self Enhancement Inc., told School Board members in May.
Under the proposal Smith released last week, Jefferson will remain open as a hybrid neighborhood-and-focus school. The high-school grades at the Young Women's Academy, the sixth-through-12th-grade girls school that technically operates as a satellite of Jefferson, would no longer exist.
Benson Polytechnic will shrink in size but keep some of its programs intact and stay a four-year school. Lincoln, Wilson and Grant stand to gain new students and, therefore, more funding and programs. Long-neglected Roosevelt in St. Johns, the recent recipient of $7.7 million in federal grant money, also comes out a winner. And Marshall?
If the School Board approves Smith's plan Oct. 12, the 700 students at Marshall's three academies will go to three different schools—Cleveland, Franklin and Madison, taking with them the state and federal funding that follows each student. Their movement will help boost the number of programs at their three new schools. (For every 24 new students, a school gets one additional teacher.)
But will those changes help Marshall students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in a district where only 45 percent do?
Parents of current Marshall students have doubts. But they're not surprised the economically disadvantaged students from Marshall are the ones being asked to make changes.
"They're forcing at-risk kids to make bigger sacrifices," says Aletha Peyton, a mother of a freshman daughter at the school. "Why do I think they chose Marshall? Because they can. The parents at these other schools have more resources. They're louder."
THE PARENT TRAP: Tricia Pietrzyk (left) and Aletha Peyton, Marshall moms, take tickets at a Marshall football game Oct. 1. IAMGE: robertdelahanty.net
Portland Public Schools hasn't closed a high school in almost 30 years, even though the population of high-school students has dropped from 15,000 in the 1980s to 11,000 now.
But the district has tried dramatic reforms to hang on to the students it has and to better prepare them for college. In 2004, as part of a $27 million statewide initiative led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust, PPS split each of its lowest-performing high schools—Jefferson, Roosevelt and Marshall—into independent, small schools with their own separate teaching staffs, principals and themes, like art, science or technology.
Six years in, the experiment has had obvious benefits for many students, including Yesenia Segovia, a 16-year-old junior at Marshall's Pauling Academy.
Segovia's mother is a shift manager at Taco Bell. Her father is a mason. Segovia says she wants to be a pediatric dentist, and to help her realize her dream, teachers at Pauling have helped her take a class at Oregon Health & Science University where she presented a research proposal on DNA sequencing.
"That's huge," says Jill Semlick, Segovia's AP Environmental Science teacher. "She would not have had that opportunity if she had gone to Franklin."
Despite modest successes like Segovia's, officials are poised to pull the plug on small schools like Pauling. The district's worsening financial picture helps explain part of the motivation. Between 2008 and today, PPS's general-fund budget shrank from $452 million to $437 million and small schools no longer get independent financial support. By consolidating students at fewer school buildings, PPS can concentrate its resources and fend off further increases in class sizes.
The new plan will push more students to attend larger comprehensive high schools, and the irony of that reversal is not lost on School Board members.
"It's like a yo-yo," says School Board member Dilafruz Williams, whose first term dates to PPS's embrace of small schools. "We're going back now full circle."
A majority of the Portland School Board appears poised to approve the school closure plan.
Board members strongly reject the claim by Marshall parents and students that their impending decision is the easiest solution, the one chosen because it's the least controversial.
"The district needs to consolidate its resources," says Pam Knowles, who joined the board in 2009. "I don't consider it the path of least resistance."
Whether the decision is the best option for Portland Public Schools is harder to say.
"It's never going to feel like the right place, but I think we're getting to a place that feels closer," says Bobbie Regan, a board member since 2003. "There's nothing worse than closing schools and changing boundaries. They have a very personal impact on people's lives."
CLARIFICATION: Lincoln and Wilson high schools would stand to gain students only if PPS raised the caps on student transfers to those schools.
FEUD PROCESSOR: Superintendent Carole Smith says "I have heartburn around the closure of the small schools.&rdquo IMAGE: robertdelahanty.net
WW: Are you relieved to have your latest proposal finally out there?
Carole Smith: I am. But the process on this feels like it was right.
It took forever. And I noticed your hair is suddenly grayer. Is this the result of the high-school redesign?
No, no, no. It's because I quit coloring it. But attribute it to high-school redesign. Please. I love it!
Are you going to put parameters around Jefferson in terms of what it must do to stay open? What happens if the student population dips below 350?
It will trigger a conversation.
What kind of conversation?
A conversation about what's going on and what's the action we're going to take.
Jefferson is the one school in PPS that every superintendent has wanted to do right by because of its symbolism in the city.
And in the state. It's the only historically African-American high school in the state. So is that a factor? I think it is a factor.
I have heartburn around the closure of the small schools at this point. That's a hard thing for me personally.
Marshall is bigger than Jefferson. So what makes Jefferson more worthy of saving than Marshall?
Jefferson is a single program with 400 students, which is within the size we'd identified as a viable focus option, 350 to 500. Each of the small schools at Marshall, none of them has reached the 300 threshold over the seven years.
But together they're 700. So why does Jefferson get to stay 400 but Marshall can't just be one big school of 700?
When we realized we didn't have the ability to start something new [at Marshall], we went down the trail of, 'Can we take any of the three [small schools] and build on it to save it?' There are a number of things that make that a challenge.… It becomes a tough sell for me to say, on faith, this school will grow from 150 to 400. I don't have a viable partner that can occupy the other part of the building. I can't guarantee it will have the same staff because we'll end up going through a bumping process with our teachers. And I don't have resources to surround it while it grows. That's where the economic factor comes in.
Juniors at Marshall will spend their senior years at three different new schools. If that were you, how would you have felt?
I don't pretend it will be easy.
Portland Public Schools' latest school-closure proposal prompts a number of changes across the district, some of which haven't been resolved. Among them:
What career tracks will Benson offer?
Benson currently offers multiple majors in automotive technology, building construction, communications, health occupations, and electric and manufacturing technology. Under Smith's latest proposal, Benson will offer fewer areas of focused study. To figure out what those ought to be, Smith and Mayor Sam Adams will form a blue-ribbon task force.
Once the high-school redesign is completed, will PPS finally go for a construction bond issue? When?
PPS administrators have talked since 2007 about the need to renovate or rebuild many of its approximately 90 schools. A $1 million study of the condition of the district's buildings suggests PPS may need up to $1 billion to upgrade its facilities. In early 2008, PPS postponed a campaign for a construction bond issue in order first to discuss what to do with its high-school programs. PPS still wants to ask voters for construction money, but won't say when it hopes to do that. A voter-approved 2006 local-option levy that raised money for teachers' salaries and books expires in 2012.
What happens to the school district's much-maligned transfer policy?
Today, a student living near Madison High in Northeast Portland who wants to go to Lincoln High in Southwest Portland can apply via annual lottery for what's called a neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfer. This program, also called school choice, has allowed popular schools like Grant High in inner Northeast Portland to grow to 1,600 students. On the flip side, less-popular schools like Jefferson have seen their enrollments decline dramatically. One of the original ideas of the high-school redesign was to curb neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers in order to equalize attendance at the different schools and, as a result, balance funding and program offerings. By not allowing transfers except under special circumstances, such as when No Child Left Behind mandates them, Smith believed she could do that. Smith's latest plan maintains the current transfer system, but district administrators say they will put caps on enrollment at certain schools.
How will neighborhood boundaries change?
The simple answer is very little. The high-school boundaries PPS has now will stay largely intact. Assuming, however, the board approves Smith's latest redesign, the board must vote to reassign Marshall students to new schools. Also, the board must decide how to grant "dual citizenship" to Jefferson students: Under Smith's plan, students who live near Jefferson but don't want to go there will have one other option, either Roosevelt, Madison or Grant, depending on where they live.
Will Self Enhancement Inc. expand its mentoring programs at Jefferson?
One of the loudest cries for keeping Jefferson open as a neighborhood school came from SEI President Tony Hopson, a Jefferson graduate (see "Hopson's Choice, WW, June 30, 2010). "Give us four more years," Hopson said in June. "If they give us what we're asking for and Jefferson remains the same as it is today four years from now, close it down." At the time, Hopson's SEI was under consideration for a multimillion-dollar federal grant to expand mentoring services at SEI to all students at Jefferson. SEI did not get the grant. But PPS and SEI want to extend the mentoring program to Jefferson anyway. They're currently exploring other financial proposals to do that.
The district will hold a community meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 6 pm at Marshall High School.
A proposal from PPS to share the Marshall campus with the David Douglas School District adjacent to PPS in Southeast Portland failed to interest David Douglas' school board.
An internal analysis of the cost of closing Marshall shows PPS would spend $600,000 to move Marshall students elsewhere. Only in later years would the district save about $800,000 a year, less than 0.2 percent of the district's overall budget.