Big news this week in Portland public education.
We are told that a majority of the board members of Portland Public Schools are rejecting the main thrust of Superintendent Carole Smith's effort to redesign the district's high schools. Whereas Smith focused heavily on changes to the district's transfer policy, the new board proposal largely scraps Smith's plan, instead proposing to close Jefferson in addition to Marshall high school.
The proposal to close Jefferson--Oregon's only majority African-American high school--was not part of the Superintendent's recommendation over these past several months of high school redesign discussions. To my knowledge, the closure plan has only just emerged in the past week, with plans for a final vote on June 21st. The votes might be there, but this is shaping up to be another heartbreaking chapter in a long history of major decisions being visited upon Portland's black community by Portland's white majority.
The school board should take a time out. There are many alternatives, and minor and major strategies that can be incorporated into the overall evaluation. That work has not been done, and it includes looking at housing investments, urban renewal spending, state government participation, and a number of other elements outside of the district's direct control. But at a minimum, our history should tell us that people deserve to participate in these kinds of major decisions--and two weeks is a slap in the face to the notion of any kind of decent respect for public opinion.
Rushing into a decision to close Jefferson and Marshall would be a major mistake.
Several factors come into play:
The first and most important is the state of Oregon's disinvestment in education since the passage of Measure 5 in 1990, outlined in detail by Steve Novick last month. Additionally, because Oregon lacks Systems Development Charges for schools, the massive housing boom from the 1990s through 2006 failed to provide facilities funding that is badly needed at schools like Jefferson and Marshall.
Enrollment at Jefferson and Marshall high schools is down significantly over the past several years, in no small part because of the series of short-term experiments tried out at these high schools, and instability in leadership and organization. The school board and district staff have yet to acknowledge that they are complicit in the decline in enrollment, and in nurturing the general sense of turmoil. Under the district's transfer policy, large numbers of parents from the Jefferson and Marshall neighborhoods have reacted to all of this turmoil by sending their children to other PPS schools. Others have moved out of the district by choice, or send their children to private school.
A third major factor is gentrification, especially in the Jefferson neighborhood. A large percentage of Portland's African-American community, along with many other households of modest incomes, has been displaced from N/NE Portland owing to rising housing costs. The city of Portland has unintentionally fueled this trend through many of its efforts to make inner Portland neighborhoods more attractive. The city should be looking at its portfolio of community investments as an exercise in finding the optimal balancing of a number of factors, not merely a steady push to raise property values. Some of this is happening already, but the talented staff at the City's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability should be given a lead role in tying city decisions and neighborhood involvement to school facilities, enrollment, and curriculum planning.
While Superintendent Smith did propose the elimination of Marshall as a neighborhood school, she did acknowledge that there were alternative ideas for keeping the neighborhood ties to Marshall. One proposal would cede control over Marshall to the David Douglas School District, PPS's neighbor to the East. David Douglas has one high school, the largest in the state, with an enrollment above 2,700 students. This week, David Douglas High School was honored by Education Week as one of 21 districts in the country to achieve an 'Outstanding' designation for its ability to deliver graduation rates (83%) far in excess of what demographic data would predict (63%). Compare this to the dismal graduation rates at PPS schools with similar demographic profiles, and you have a self-evident reason for slowing down on the redesign and engaging in talks with David Douglas, the city of Portland, Portland Community College, and the State of Oregon about a partnership on a renewed Marshall campus.
The district has no funding base to meet its facilities needs. Marshall sits right on the boundary between the two districts. Many details would have to be worked out, but PPS appears ready to reject any type of collaborative effort on Marshall. This would be a mistake.
Good things, not bad things, come from well-executed public involvement plans. Unfortunately, though at the mercy of external funding restrictions that compel gut-wrenching choices, Portland Public Schools has proven itself to be exceptionally bad at public involvement--especially when it comes to facilities and curriculum questions that cut across its major departments. The district's best course would be to acknowledge its history of failures to effectively engage the community, and find a way to fix this process. The Governor, State Superintendent, the City of Portland, and Portland's legislative delegation should help to lead a better public process, because the schools certainly can't solve these problems alone.
Portland's greatest successes have come from trying to achieve constructive goals, and then finding the specific ways forward by tapping into the uniquely strong commitment to civic engagement evidenced by Portland residents. The people who live here are smart, and they care. Give them a chance to help solve the problems, and the quality of the overall proposal will improve. The process to find answers will be more complex with the right level of public involvement, and the effort to synthesize creative community proposals will take real leadership and attention, and that's how it should be.