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May 17th, 2006 Don Mcintosh | News Stories
 

Academy Makeover

The latest attempt to solve the Jefferson High School puzzle angers some parents, students and teachers.

     
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IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
With only three weeks until finals wrap up this school year, confusion reigns again at Jefferson High School over what its latest new look will be come September.

Portland Public Schools was planning to break Jefferson down into four small schools. But now two of them—separate academies for boys and girls—will be delayed for a year.

Radical change, and the uncertainty that follows, is nothing new at Jeff, which with a 66 percent African-American student population is Portland's only majority-black high school.

But that doesn't mean parents, students or teachers are happy about it.

"The students have been told nothing,'' says Nancy Smith, mother of a Jefferson sophomore and member of the school's Parent Teacher Student Association.

Jefferson's overhauls started eight years ago, when all the teachers and administrators at the North Portland school were fired and new ones assigned in an effort to lift student test scores on standardized tests.

Two years ago, Jefferson was split into two schools within the same building, each bearing a grandiose name evocative of private schools: a "School of Pride Preparatory Academy" and a "School of Champions Middle College."

A year into that experiment, a new district superintendent, Vicki Phillips, arrived. She then appointed a "design team" to recommend still more transformation.

That team of 22 community members recommended adopting school uniforms—not for the whole district, just for Jefferson.

That idea went down in flames after students and parents objected.

But the team's other ideas won 6-0 approval from the School Board in January. Jefferson would be broken down into four smaller schools: an Academy of Science and Technology, an Academy of Arts and Technology, a Boys College, and a Girls College.

Smaller schools are a special focus for the Gates Foundation, which has donated millions to the district, as well as for the Broad Foundation, which is subsidizing the $80,000 annual salary of an ex-investment banker who is working on the Jefferson redesign (see "Schools' 'Broad' Agenda," WW, May 3, 2006).

Yet the district is announced this week that the boys' and girls' gender-segregated academies will be delayed a year in their rollout because boys balked at single-gender classes and proved daunting to recruit.

The district might have known that would happen—if it had asked the people most interested: students and their parents who have long requested that consideration.

"The redesign committee spent six months looking at how to change Jefferson without adequately talking to staff, students or parents,'' says Lenny Edwards, a video production teacher who has worked at Jefferson for 19 years.

Instead, the overhaul is starting to resemble Phillips' other most recent divisive proposal: her plan to close and reconfigure schools.

"We're trying to do this in the best way possible, and be very deliberate,'' says district spokesman Bob Lawrence. "That may seem slow to some people."

The result of this confusion: Students haven't been able to schedule their classes next year because the administration doesn't know what classes will be offered.

And since the deadline to transfer to a different high school expired March 3, the district says no more students will be allowed to leave Jeff.

Already, the school's enrollment since 1998 has dropped from roughly 900 students to 647 because of district policy that lets kids transfer to schools outside of the neighborhood. Only 27 percent of high-school students living within Jefferson's cluster boundaries actually attend Jefferson.

Some Jefferson parents worry that if this latest makeover is botched, the school's enrollment will be too small to keep Jeff's doors open and students will be apportioned to newly formed charter schools.

Jefferson freshman Dacia Brown just wants some certainty about next year.

"I think our school," Brown says, "should stay the same as it is now."

 
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