A College Can’t Be Used as a School, so Jefferson High Students Will Travel 11 Miles

The school district blames Portland zoning for putting the kibosh on an obvious solution.

Next fall, a $300 million renovation begins on Jefferson High School, funded by a 2020 bond measure. Already, parents are alarmed at the prospect of busing their children 11 miles away to Marshall High School during the renovation.

So they’re scrambling for different solutions. The most obvious alternative is staring at them from across North Killingsworth Street.

Portland Community College’s Cascade campus is a block from Jefferson and, even better, many of the students already know their way around it. Jefferson has a partnership with PCC called Middle College for Advanced Studies, where students can take classes at PCC and graduate high school with more than a year’s worth of college credits under their belts.

Jefferson—which had the smallest student body of all of Portland Public Schools’ neighborhood high schools, at 607 students last school year—could theoretically fold right into PCC-Cascade, which enrolls 17,301. But both schools have rejected the idea.

PCC cited space. In a statement to WW, spokesman James G. Hill said PCC “cannot accommodate a large-scale move of Jefferson to the Cascade campus due to capacity and increasing enrollment” but that the college “is in discussions with PPS about ways to assist the educational pathways of Jefferson High School students.”

The school district went with a bureaucratic fave: zoning.

In an email sent to Jefferson families, PPS said PCC is not permitted to be used exclusively as a high school and changing this city zoning “could take years, so it is not a realistic option.”

Michael Andersen, a housing and transportation researcher at the think tank Sightline Institute, disagreed that city zoning is immovable. “For something on this scale—if a bunch of parents were organized and zoning truly was the No. 1 obstacle—that’s totally within the bounds of something the city could possibly do,” Andersen said.

The rule that PPS cited is that schools and colleges are zoned differently from each other. In a head-spinning bit of bureaucracy, schools are not identified as a permissible use of a college.

“It’s a good example of the absurdity that gets built into zoning code over time if nobody is saying, ‘Do we need that?’” said Andersen, who this week posted a popular social media thread unpacking the zoning excuse.

Throughout the past few years of renovation planning, PPS assured Jefferson families that students could stay on site during construction. That turned out to be prohibitively expensive and would add an extra year to the work. Construction is slated to begin next summer and will now wrap up in 2027 instead of 2028.

In an emotional meeting Aug. 23 in the Jefferson cafeteria, previously reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, parents repeatedly interrupted the planned presentation and then some appeared to storm out when it became clear that the decision had already been made to move students to Marshall.

“When people are presented with change, there’s emotion that comes on until we get to acceptance,” Jefferson principal Drake Shelton said at the meeting. “And I’m not saying that you have to accept this. Let me just throw that out there.”

PPS will provide school bus transportation to and from the Marshall campus (including for extracurricular activities) during Jefferson’s renovation. Benson Polytechnic High School is currently using Marshall as its campus until its own building renovation is finished in 2024.

“I don’t know if zoning is the real issue,” Andersen said. “It does seem pretty wild that students have been walking across the street to go to classes [at PCC] for years and now they can’t use it as a school.”

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