March 9th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Schools

High-School Redesign? Check. PPS Transfer Policy? Next.

Portland School Board

Members of the Portland School Board voted 5-2 last night to approve PPS's resolution on high schools. But during almost three hours of testimony that ended about 11:30 pm, talk kept coming back to Portland Public Schools' longstanding policy of letting students transfer to different neighborhood schools.

The transfer policy was held out as a crucial component of PPS's "school choice" ethos, which was credited for keeping more than 80 percent of eligible students in Portland Public Schools. Alternatively, the transfer policy was called the root of the problem driving down enrollment at Jefferson High (which has about 450 students) and boosting enrollment at Grant High (which has about 1,600 students).

This afternoon Superintendent Carole Smith will hear a new report [PDF] on Portland's transfer system and its effect on high-school enrollment. The report's quickie summary? It's not as simple as it seems. Also, the proposed ban on neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers probably would not be enough to balance enrollment at the district's high schools.

First, 27 percent of high school students who don't attend their neighborhood schools leave in order to go to non-neighborhood public schools like charter or alternative schools. Only about 14 percent of students use the neighborhood-to-neighborhood pathway. But that is enough to "make or break a school's enrollment and with it, the curriculum offered to students," the report says. Marshall High, not Jefferson, is the biggest loser in this equation, failing to capture 389 students in 2008.

Trouble is, Portland Public Schools has limited opportunities to change this overall trend because of No Child Left Behind and board policy that responds to that federal mandate. Seventy percent of the 474 students who got neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers in 2009-2010 did so because of NCLB or school board policy related to NCLB.

Students who don't have priority under NCLB to transfer schools often use "back doors" to get to neighborhood schools they want, according to the report. Right now, for example, a student can ask to go to Cleveland High to attend its International Baccalaureate program, but there is no requirement that the student stick with that program. Also, parents sometimes use "hardship petitions" instead of the general transfer program, which uses a lottery. "Data show that TAG students transfer through the hardship process more than the 'choice' lottery process," the report says.

The 21-page report contains numerous additional factoids and a full history of the policy and its many exemptions. It's well worth the read.
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