By Betsy Richter and Roger Devine of Portland, Oregon. Betsy's kids attend Fernwood and Buckman schools, while Roger's son attends Creative Science School in Southeast Portland. Their families live on opposite sides of the Willamette, but share similar views about Portland's public schools.
Last month, Kari Chisholm asked What does "school" mean?.
If there's a well-functioning community of teachers, staff, parents, and students -- why do we assume that they won't be just as well-functioning in another physical location? Why do we fetishize the building, instead of recognizing that it's the people that make the difference?
We read the 68 comments (and counting), as parents came out in force to defend and support their local neighborhood schools. Many of those parents belong to a grassroots coalition – the Neighborhood Schools Alliance. They've been a very vocal group of late – they're frequently quoted in news stories, interviewed by television crews, or rallying the troops to comment on blogs around town. And you might assume, given the media attention, that this grassroots coalition speaks for the majority of PPS parents.
In fact, we assert there's a relatively silent majority of PPS parents out there – parents who recognize the district needs to make changes in order to survive as a viable whole long-term, parents who have carved out neighborhoods and communities defined not by geographic boundaries, but by choice. Parents who are also weary of change, and tired of the continual fight for resources - but committed nonetheless to helping support and grow a strong public school system.
One of us – Betsy - has two children in PPS. One child walks to our neighborhood middle school, the other takes the bus to a magnet school. There's no appreciable difference in the two school communities; Betsy's able to walk her child (plus a few others) to the bus stop each morning. Roger's family has chosen to drive their child across town each day in order to give him a learning environment best suited to his educational needs, and Roger gives generously of his time and energy to help grow and sustain that school community.
And while we support wholeheartedly the goal of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance to protect and strengthen neighborhood schools in all of Portland's neighborhoods, we disagree strongly with the rhetorical tactic of disparaging the special focus programs in our district in their Comments on the Superintendent's Closure/Reconfiguration Proposals.
The NSA response reads, in part:
"The district has plenty of small focus option programs that aren't held to the same size standard. They are creating many small high school programs. If we can no longer "afford" smaller schools, then why not close down the boutique focus options? The District says "it wouldn't want to change what is working"-why does this logic apply to focus options, but not to neighborhood schools? Since the boutique schools aren't available for all Portland children, wouldn't it be more fair and logical to preserve and improve what's accessible to every child: his or her neighborhood school?"
We have three problems with this argument: first, the statement that focus options "aren't available for all Portland children" is simply false. Access to all focus options is available on a lottery basis to any family living within the Portland Public School District. Admissions is not dependent on any test or economic factor, other than that the lottery is very slightly weighted to favor students who qualify for free- or reduced- lunch. This blind lottery system also applies to all neighborhood schools in the district, allowing parents to move their children from the school in their "catchment" to another, higher-performing neighborhood school if they wish. This does, of course, lead to the rise of some neighborhood schools that each year have a high demand for few slots. Would the NSA label these as "not available to all Portland children"?
The second problem, of course, is that many families have already chosen to support options other than their local neighborhood school. Today, 1 in 3 students (and their families) make the choice not to attend neighborhood schools, in fact - they attend schools elsewhere in the district. (The number increases to 40% in high school.) One could argue that these are children we're keeping in the district by giving their families a choice (where we might otherwise lose them to private schools or other out-of-district options.)
When we mention Irvington School, for example, what picture comes to mind? Affluent school community, involved volunteer parents, children of a predominant ethnicity. But those assumptions would be incorrect. The reality here is that Irvington's transfer in rate has varied over the past several years in the 40-50% range; its current school enrollment includes 45% African American students, for example, with close to 35% of their students receiving free or reduced meals. In fact, families choosing to transfer in often cited the diversity of the school population as a motivating factor.
Irvington's situation isn't a unique one – we would argue that the PPS transfer policy actually creates diversity and a less homogenized school culture than you'd suppose. We invite you to take a look at the statistics (available on the PPS web site) on a school by school basis and you might discover that your perceptions about certain school communities aren't borne out by the actual enrollment data. Should we be telling families transferring into schools like Irvington that they 'ought' to be supporting their own neighborhood school instead? No more so than we can legally prevent families from taking advantage of No Child Left Behind to leave their underperforming neighborhood school behind.
Finally, we're convinced that this "divide-and-conquer" strategy – where you disparage one group of successful schools in order to promote or protect other successful schools, or use inflammatory words like 'boutique' - is a bad one. We agree that the district's high-performing, successful schools should be assets that the district promotes and nurtures, rather than targets for cuts. But we also believe that approach should include ALL of the district's high-performing, successful schools if at all possible, even while we recognize that we live in an environment where shrinking resources and enrollment may not always support that goal. As parents, we should be advocating the preservation of every school within our district that works, and then finding ways to bring the rest of the schools up to a high level of performance – even if that means consolidation or reconfiguration, even if it requires a level of personal sacrifice to sustain a greater good. (Betsy's family – most importantly, her middle school son – is still skeptical about the proposed changes to Fernwood Middle School , for example.)
As for the NSA's comments concerning the Creative Science School; we find it strange to label a program "elitist" that draws heavily from its neighborhood (the same neighborhood that, when applied to the Bridger neighborhood program, provides a large percentage of lower-income and minority children), is open to students from all neighborhoods throughout the city, and has a high percentage of students eligible for free- or reduced- lunch. The program does have a high percentage of parental involvement, like many focus option programs - but then again, so does Rieke and many other neighborhood schools.
We can support much of what the NSA says in their response, and we have a great respect for their mission of advocating for neighborhood schools. However, we're concerned why they're choosing to conduct that mission by denigrating other successful, high-performing programs, or by alienating parents who have chosen schools other than their own neighborhood schools. Like Rieke, Hollyrood and the other examples the NSA likes to point to, the focus programs are also successful programs, and help keep PPS vibrant. Giving families choices helps keep those families and students enrolled in PPS. And our community benefits from the contributions these 'non-neighborhood' school communities offer up as well.
It is very likely that we'll all have a job to do this fall as we persuade voters that PPS needs a local option levy to provide the financial stability we've learned we cannot rely on from our state government. It is also true that the district needs much more input from parents and community members as it refines its operational plans in the weeks to come. Pitting parents and school communities against each other will only weaken both of those valuable efforts, and do our children little good.