Is a Contentious Remodel a Chance to Boost Jefferson High School’s Low Enrollment?

While some high schools’ enrollments have dipped during renovation, student populations tend to flourish once the new buildings are complete.

Jefferson High School. (Joe Riedl)

News that the Jefferson High School campus will be closed to students from 2024 to 2027 has its North Portland community worried what will happen to enrollment during and after the $300 million renovation.

The school district assured families throughout the planning process that Jefferson students could stay on-site during the renovation. But that turned out to be prohibitively expensive and would add an extra year to the work. Last month, Portland Public Schools announced Jefferson students would have to bus to the Marshall High School campus during construction.

“The kids on the cusp are either going to transfer or drop out. That’s just the reality,” says Jenn Latu, president of Jefferson’s Parent Teacher Student Association.

Only 607 students attended Jefferson last year; the renovated Jefferson will hold up to 1,700. And the district contends a new building will draw more students to the least-attended neighborhood high school in Portland.

“All of the other schools have seen an increase in enrollment once the schools have been completed,” says district spokeswoman Valerie Feder. “It is likely that the same thing will happen with Jefferson.”

Enrollment numbers from PPS back her up. While some high school’s enrollments have dipped during renovation—such as Benson Polytechnic, which is currently under construction—student populations tend to flourish once the new buildings are complete.

PPS has finished modernizing or rebuilding five high schools so far with money from a series of voter-approved bonds that started in 2012.

Grant went from around 1,500 students before and during its 2017-to-2019 renovation to a bustling 2,159 last year. Franklin, Roosevelt and Leodis V. McDaniel (formerly Madison) high schools are each up about 400 students.

Such numbers are of increasing urgency to Portland Public Schools. Enrollment in PPS has fallen by 7.5% post-pandemic, due to factors such as a declining birth rate, rising housing prices, safety fears, and the rise of home schooling and online schools (“Big Kid on Campus,” WW, April 12). This is of lesser concern in high schools, where numbers have held steadier than in elementary schools, which plunged by 17.3% from 2019 to 2021.

The enrollment issue came up at the beginning of a heated Aug. 23 meeting in the Jefferson cafeteria.

“We have one of the lowest enrollments of freshman classes the last three years, and it continues to trend that way,” Jefferson principal Drake Shelton said at the meeting. “So when we talk about keeping our Black babies here, what I want to figure out is, how do we get them to even walk through the door?”

Students in the Jefferson neighborhood have remarkable flexibility in choosing a high school, with many homes co-zoned for Grant, McDaniel or Roosevelt.

Sondra Cozart says her sophomore son and all his friends plan to transfer to one of those schools if PPS proceeds with the Marshall plan. “This move is going to be very traumatic to a lot of kids academically, especially in the BIPOC population,” says Cozart, who is Black.

Many Jefferson students struggle to get to class on time when school is right there in the community, let alone 11 miles away, Cozart says. The district provides school buses to and from the Marshall campus during renovations, but headaches from the continuing national bus driver shortage have left parents distrustful.

PPS considered using the Portland Community College-Cascade campus right across North Killingsworth Street for Jefferson students, but both school systems nixed that plan. (PCC cited capacity concerns and PPS blamed a zoning issue that “could take years” to resolve.)

When a rebuilt Jefferson reopens in four years, Cozart worries she will not recognize her alma mater.

“What will Jefferson look like, if it ever comes back?’” Cozart asks. “The school will still be called Jefferson High School but the population of students that are there now? They’re not going to be able to survive this move.”

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