On a balmy, nearly full-moon August evening, only a few people showed up at a Portland Public Schools board meeting.
That was fortunate for board members and Superintendent Carole Smith, because district auditor Richard Tracy showed up with a briefcase full of bad news.
In the matter-of-fact tone of a man reading a phone book, Tracy walked Smith and board members through a report of the district's most important function—graduating students.
His findings were appalling.
It's no secret PPS has struggled to get diplomas in students' hands, even as it has retained a reputation as one of the last urban districts in the nation able to hold onto middle-class families.
But Tracy's comparative study of Oregon's next three largest districts and the school districts in Seattle and Long Beach, Calif., revealed just how terribly Portland is failing.
Portland's four-year high-school graduation rate of 63 percent is 14 points lower than Beaverton's, 12 points lower than Hillsboro's and six points lower than Salem's. That puts Portland at the bottom of the barrel in a state that has the fourth-lowest high-school graduation rate in the nation.
Portland's rate of graduating minority and low-income students is also worse when compared with other districts.
The problem is not a lack of money.
Portland's per-pupil spending is, on average, 19 percent higher than the three other aforementioned Oregon districts' and 24 percent higher than Long Beach's.
"That was shocking to me," says third-term PPS board member Bobbie Regan. "We are spending a whole lot more money per student than other districts."
How can Portland, which has long prided itself on public schools, be performing so poorly? Answers are elusive, but in his 61-page audit, Tracy offered some clues: Other districts have "rigorous accountability" and "leadership from the superintendent," he wrote.
The implication was that Portland does not.
The auditor also pointed to another difference between Portland and the other districts, which have all moved away from the once-popular practice of farming out struggling high-schoolers to privately run community-based alternative schools.
In Long Beach, for example, Tracy wrote, "The district has taken over several alternative schools because they found the option expensive and ineffective."
Portland has bucked that trend. Under the leadership of Smith, the district has maintained a strong commitment to community-based alternative schools. That commitment seems odd given that the graduation rate at Portland's alternative schools is far worse than the district's at large: For 2011-12, the four-year graduation rate at community-based alternative high schools was 9 percent.
The graduation crisis has consequences for families with kids in Portland Public Schools, but also for current and future taxpayers. Given those stakes, it might seem that alternative schools would be the subject of vigorous debate in the corridors of education policy.
In fact, conversations with educators, experts and activists suggest that the School Board and the superintendent are as wedded to alternative schools as Portland is to light rail.
That's because, many observers say, Portland was a pioneer in alternative education and because Smith spent 23 years running a community-based alternative school.
Two board members have connections to private, community-based programs. And, critics suggest, in a city fueled by liberal guilt, it's easier to give community groups public contracts than fix problems at the district's high schools.
Whatever the explanation, Tracy's audit is a warning the School Board cannot ignore.
"We have an abysmal graduation rate and a much higher rate of students enrolled in alternative programs than other districts," says former PPS board member Trudy Sargent, who served from 2005 until July. "Why?"
The Native American Youth and Family Center's 10-acre campus is an oasis along a gritty stretch of industrial Northeast Portland.
The property, which borders traditional native fishing spots on the Columbia Slough, is today surrounded by metal-bending shops, heavy-equipment yards and the sooty exhaust of diesel rigs roaring up and down Northeast Columbia Boulevard.
Inside the nonprofit's 60,000-square-foot community center is one of Portland's most disenfranchised groups.
Brightly colored artwork and somber photographs tell the story of what the Pacific Northwest tribes lost when the West was won.
Donors drop off boxes of bread and canned goods for struggling families; kids peer at computers. There's a catering operation, family counseling and 12-step groups—along with a NAYA-run high school that last year served 95 students.
The typical Portland high school is a big brick box like Grant or Madison.
The Portland district operates seven such brick boxes, ranging in enrollment from 915 at Roosevelt in North Portland to 1,563 at Lincoln in Southwest. (The district no longer considers Jefferson and Benson Tech comprehensive high schools.)
Less well known are the community-based alternative high schools that PPS hires to handle students who have failed in conventional settings.
In all, community-based alternative high schools served 1,131 students as of last month. That's about 10 percent of the students who attend PPS high schools.
(The district also runs its own alternative high schools, which are fully staffed with district personnel and union teachers. Those schools include Alliance, which focuses on dropout recovery, and Metropolitan Learning Center, which serves higher achievers. Finally, there are also charter schools, which have the same reporting requirements as conventional public schools but have independent boards and are required to employ only 50 percent union teachers.)
In his audit, however, Tracy focused on community-based alternative high schools, which employ mostly non-union teachers and are subject to far less oversight and fewer reporting requirements than district schools. For example, all PPS high schools, district-run alternatives and charter schools submit graduation and a variety of other statistics to the state, which produces publicly available school report cards.
Community-based alternatives do not.
Such schools serve different niches across the city. YouthBuilders, for example, teaches students carpentry and basic construction skills; nearby Mt. Scott Learning Center serves kids who have left PPS schools as early as sixth grade.
Some schools, such as NAYA, offer culturally specific instruction, and others, such as De Paul Treatment Centers, serve students dealing with substance abuse.
Historically, the purpose of community-based alternative schools was to offer dropouts more personalized attention, counseling and remedial instruction to help them catch up. The quality of such programs varied widely from accredited, diploma-granting operations to dropout warehouses.
Interviews with five students at Mt. Scott Learning Center, one of the district's more highly regarded contractors, yielded a consistent story: They'd dropped out of Cleveland, Franklin and Madison high schools, feeling as if nobody cared.
"It was really easy to skip [school]," says Steven, who dropped out of Cleveland 2½ years ago. "You just write your own cellphone number on the [information] sheet, so if somebody tries to check on why you're not at school, they get you instead of your parents."
Steven says he gets individual attention and the help of social services within the cheery former Methodist church that is now his school.
Whatever their focus, community-based alternative schools have one thing in common—they are trying to rescue kids who have failed at the big-box high schools.
"For the most part, our alternative schools are a dropout recovery system," says Carla Gay, PPS's manager of community-based programs.
The numbers suggest the recovery isn't going well.
Gay says PPS has no graduation statistics for individual alternative schools.
But on aggregate, the numbers the district does make available for contracted alternative schools are woeful.
In 2011, the four-year graduation rate for contracted alternative schools was 15 percent. Last year, it sunk to 9 percent.
That means only 9 percent of students who enter such schools as freshmen graduate four years later. That compares with 63 percent districtwide and 78 percent nationally.
Still, Portland remains heavily committed to such programs. Supporters say the single-digit graduation rate is a reflection of community alternative schools having to deal with a challenging population.
District observers, however, say Superintendent Smith is the reason PPS contracts with such schools.
"The board follows Carole Smith and rubber-stamps whatever she wants because they think she's the expert," says Teresa McGuire, a former teacher who is part of the group Restore Education Before Buildings.
"But she's blinded by not having experience in a traditional classroom setting."
Carole Smith spent nearly 30 years working in private alterative education before joining PPS's central administration in 2005.
Smith grew up in Beaverton. After graduating from Ohio's Oberlin College in 1976, she moved to Boston, working at an alternative school and earning a master's degree in education at Harvard.
Smith returned to Oregon 1982, and for the next 23 years served as executive director of Open Meadow, a community-based alternative school in North Portland.
Open Meadow, located in a vintage Victorian on three grassy acres overlooking the Willamette River, is one the Pacific Northwest's oldest community-based alternative schools and holds one of the largest contracts of any such PPS program—$1.2 million last year.
Smith left Open Meadow in 2005 to oversee alternative education for PPS, and in October 2007 she succeeded her boss, Vicki Phillips, as Portland's superintendent.
At a personal level, it's easy to see why Smith is PPS's longest-serving superintendent since Matthew Prophet, who retired in 1992.
In contrast to her hyperkinetic predecessor, whom WW nicknamed "Hurricane Vicki," Smith is warm, self-effacing and drama-free.
In a position that attracts big personalities who chase paychecks from city to city, Smith is a minimalist. She favors muted colors, short hair and has refused the board's repeated efforts to increase her $190,000 annual salary.
During her tenure, Smith has brought about change. In 2010, she closed Marshall High School in the outer east side and, as a way to force students to attend Jefferson, sharply reduced and capped enrollment at the district's top magnet high school, Benson Tech.
But what Smith has more difficulty doing is convincingly defending PPS's commitment to community-based alternative schools.
In 2011, the district did decrease from 18 to 13 the number of community-based alternative schools with which it contracts.
Smith says cutting ties with long-term partners was difficult and that she has assigned her advisory High School Action Team to ensure that community-based alternatives "are aligned more tightly with district standards."
But while Smith cut some providers, the percentage of Portland students served in community-based alternatives has not changed on her watch.
"We've retained that option when other districts haven't," Smith argues.
Her reaction to Tracy's audit was "holy schmoly!" and she says it showed that Portland's graduation rate is "completely unacceptable," but adds Tracy's audit also contains some positives. For example, Portland's overall four-year graduation rate has risen 10 percentage points from 53 percent to 63 percent since 2008, the biggest increase among Oregon's large districts.
"We're trending in the right direction," Smith says.
Smith also notes that by a different measure, high-school completion (which includes getting a GED or finishing in more than four years) in Portland is only a couple of points below the state average.
Her defense of community-based alternatives is less persuasive.
"For 40 years, we've had a grassroots response to how to meet the needs of kids who are struggling," she says.
Critics say that PPS's attachment to community alternative schools comes at the expense of conventional high schools.
Community-based alternatives are expensive, ranging between $7,175 and $14,700 per student per year.
That's substantially more than PPS spends on students at big-box high schools. Last year, per-student spending at the district's three largest high schools—Lincoln, Cleveland and Grant—averaged $4,817.
"The bias toward alternative education and special-interest groups is actually cutting the programs that are working for diverse populations," says Lainie Block Wilker, a Northeast Portland activist who has tried to reverse the district's effort to drive students away from Benson.
Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton says placing struggling students in community-based alternative schools is an abrogation of a district's responsibility to provide a rigorous education to all students.
"It's more effective to keep kids inside the district," Saxton says. "If they need particular services, it is our duty to deliver them where they stand rather than labeling and sending them to a special program."
In Tracy's audit, the most stark contrast examined was the Long Beach, Calif., district, which serves far more low-income and minority students and spends far less per student than Portland.
In the 2011-12 school year, Long Beach's graduation rate was 80 percent, 17 points higher than Portland's. The Los Angeles County district achieved those results with a completely different approach than Portland's.
"The district has taken over several alternative schools," Tracy wrote. "Because they found the option expensive and ineffective."
The Salem-Keizer School District looks a lot like Portland's. It has almost as many students (41,800 to Portland's 48,000) and six big-box high schools compared to Portland's seven. Salem serves a higher percentage of minority students, low-income students and students for whom English is a second language than Portland.
And yet Salem's overall graduation rate is six percentage points higher than Portland's, including 10 percentage points higher for minority students.
Tracy found another striking difference: Salem does not contract with any alternative high-school programs.
Instead, Salem employs "graduation coaches" who bird-dog truants, the district foundation assigns mentors to each school to help struggling kids, and every school works from the district's tightly focused strategic plan.
Sandy Husk, Salem's superintendent, has been on the job about the same length of time as Smith.
Unlike Smith, who came to PPS from a community-based alternative school, Husk had taught at a public school for a decade, then served as a district superintendent in two other states.
"When I came here, what I found was that kids who are at risk of dropping out often move around a lot within the system," Husk says. "If the students experience different approaches at different schools, it can feel like starting all over again."
Husk says parents entrust their children to the school district expecting it to educate them, and that is the district's, not a contractor's, responsibility.
"We have no outside providers," Husk says. "We own all the kids. They are all our kids. It is our job to respond to what they need."
Tracy singled out Husk's role in Salem's success.
"Leadership from the superintendent is the essential feature of management," Tracy wrote. "A sense of urgency is communicated to principals and teachers for student success measured by graduation rates, dropout prevention, and academic success."
It did not take a genius to see that Tracy's audit was an implied critique of Smith's tenure.
That's a departure from conventional wisdom, because since Smith became PPS's superintendent in 2007, she has received rave reviews from her board.
Last year, board co-chairman Greg Belisle complimented Smith on an "extraordinary" job.
Some critics think the board is largely a rubber stamp for Smith, in part because of the professional background of two of its members.
Board policy prohibits PPS employees from serving on the board, because that would be a conflict of interest.
There is no such policy for district contractors.
Belisle works for Impact Northwest, which PPS has paid $1.8 million over the past five years to run after-school programs for at-risk kids at nine PPS schools.
Another board member, Matt Morton, is executive director of NAYA, the Native American group that runs a community-based alternative school for PPS. NAYA also has a parent outreach contract and is currently negotiating to run a PPS childhood education program in Lents.
"I don't understand how a board member can draw a paycheck from an entity that gets money from PPS,â says McGuire of Restore Education Before Buildings.
Belisle says PPS contracts are a small part of his employer's revenue and don't affect his thinking or compensation. He says he and other board members are pushing Smith to accelerate improvements, but he notes the district is implementing major changes amid large budget cuts. Belisle is wary of placing blame on community-based alternative schools. "That feels a little simplistic," he says.
For his part, Morton says he has regularly disclosed the potential conflicts between his NAYA and board roles. Like Belisle, he says his dual roles have not caused him to favor community-based alternatives. "I've managed my position with integrity," Morton says. "As a board member, my job is to support and invest in programs that work, and that's what I've done."
After last year's board elections, members are beginning to question the status quo. Steve Buel, a retired teacher who is rejoining the board after a 32-year absence, has been critical of the board's unwillingness to debate issues publicly.
Tom Koehler, the other new board member, peppered Tracy with questions about the audit at the August board meeting.
"It was alarming," Koehler says of the audit. "We are spending more and getting less. That is not acceptable."
Koehler, a co-founder of Pacific Ethanol, says after five months on the board he believes the district's approach to evaluating management is too slack.
"Going forward," he says, "I think we need to be much more specific in our expectations of how we define success and where we need improvement."
Community-Based Alternative Education
The names and addresses of Portland's community-based alternative high schools: