This past week, PPS Superintendent Vicki Phillips proposed closing six schools. The usual outrage then ensued, with folks essentially saying "do something else, find something else, don’t impact my kid, impact the kid behind the tree." The more curious response was that both of our newspapers implied the decision was the result of top down management style that was unsuited to Portland.
First of all, let’s face the truth – PPS has lost 9,000 students, one-sixth of its total, in the past ten years. We cannot in good faith sustain all these buildings. Buildings are not schools. Programs are schools. Teachers are schools. Parents and children are schools. If you change boundaries, within a few years a new community forms. Most major districts do this with far greater frequency than does PPS. I for one, and though I’m off the PPS Board am still a PPS parent, would rather pay for student teacher ratio than for 80 year old crumbling buildings, more non-teaching staff overhead and utilities.
Second, Phillips (who came on Kremer and Abrams yesterday and answered all callers) did not do anything an atom differently from how Jim Scherzinger handled matters when we closed a few schools two years ago. He picked them, after careful analysis, and he talked one by one with the Board to make sure he wouldn’t be left hanging out there. That’s what a good manger does and that’s what Phillips has done. You want public process? You’ll get it. In fact, even after Phillips denied this, I still think there’s a good chance that one of the fish will be thrown back into the pond to show the public was listened too. That fish will (and should) be Edwards, with it’s year-round program. What did folks want? An announcement that "we need to close six schools – you pick ‘em?" That’s not public process, that’s chaos. We elect a Board to decide after public input, not to manage a process of direct democracy where whoever shows up at school board meetings gets to vote.
Third, frankly, Phillips did not go far enough. We don’t need ten high schools in this District. I suggest to you that it’s time to close Jefferson. As Henry Cabot Lodge once famously said, "declare victory and go home." Jeff is down to 700 kids. This despite receiving almost twice the per pupil funding of every other high school, including No Child Left Behind designated Marshall and Roosevelt. This despite having a student-teacher ratio every other kid in the District would kill for. This despite getting magnets and special treatment galore for 25 years.
The parents have voted with their feet. Last time I looked at the numbers, of those high school age children in the Jefferson attendance area, 41% went to Benson, and only 33% to Jeff. The next lowest capture rate (and admittedly this was two years ago before NCLB transfers) was 86% at Madison. None of the supposed cures have convinced the consumers of the product. About six years ago, when I delivered the welcome at Jeff’s graduation, I met before hand with student leaders. One of them, heartbreakingly, told me "Our parents think we’re the dumb ones. The smart ones they send to Benson."
Perhaps Phillips should be given her chance to repeat the efforts of the past. After all, she’s new and brimming with optimism. Perhaps it will be different this time. Perhaps a combined 12th grade/freshman year at PCC program, which Lolenzo Poe and I advocated two years ago and which Phillips has embraced, will be the key to revival of Jefferson. But let’s not pretend that keeping this school open as it is helps the African-American community, or even that the school is "historically" Black. It does not and it is not.
If we closed Jeff, we would have to do some real boundary changes. Expanding Roosevelt – which is NCLB [meaning students can transfer out by fiat] doesn’t help. We’d need to move Cleveland north, Grant west, and, because Grant would then need to lose population, Franklin north and west. The result would be that Grant would become majority minority, and does anyone doubt that Grant is an effective program? Cleveland has the International Baccalaureate program, which is currently unavailable to Jeff students, and which is making Cleveland a highly competitive institution. There may be voices advocating for Jefferson, but how many of them have children at the school?
So let the public process begin, but I would suggest not only that the choice to close schools was the right one, I’d suggest it if we put aside adult politics, it didn’t go far enough.