By Sue Hagmeier of Portland, Oregon. Sue was elected to the Portland School Board in 1995 and re-elected in 1999.
Respect for history and respect for community go hand in hand. The current school administration and board majority appear to begin and end with the view that nothing happened until they came on board. They seem unwilling either to look at the work that has gone before or to undertake the hard work needed to truly weigh the realities involved in providing accessible educational programs now and for generations to come. Oh, and it's interesting to see them take credit for the sale of Washington High, the background work for which was done before they thought of running for the board.
Campaigning for second terms, three board members seemed to be running against all those who had served before them. "First budget without cuts in 13 years." First, it's not the first, and second, this budget involves cuts. Ask any principal, if you can get them to talk; they've been warned that dissent equals insubordination.
The current Portland Public Schools administration proposed and implemented sweeping changes in how we use our school buildings and how we "configure" educational programs in our city. Specifically, in some neighborhoods, a "reconfiguration" is taking place, doing away with elementary and middle schools and creating K-8 schools in some of the buildings while closing others.
With the concurrence of a board majority, the public was bypassed in developing the plan; in fact, the public was not even presented with evidence that implementing the plan would make things better. We have not seen evidence that the "reconfiguration" plan is a good idea and we have not seen evidence that appropriate, non-cherry-picked research supports the plan as either an educational or a financial initiative.
In explaining reconfiguration from elementary and middle schools to K-8 schools, the loss of educational opportunities for middle schoolers in K-8 schools has been glossed over and a case has not been made that something about K-8 schools makes up for that loss. (There will not be sufficient numbers of middle school kids in the K-8s to support a full middle school curriculum.) Similarly, safety and other issues involved in putting small children in a big kids' building and vice versa have not been discussed in public. We haven't asked young families whether nearby school closures will affect their choices to stay in the city or go elsewhere. We certainly aren't talking about whether, or how much, "reconfiguration" will reinforce segregation by race and income in the district. The only way to keep the downside of school closures out of the discussion was to bypass both public process and informed expert opinion.
It should be noted that there were two extensive studies of district facilities undertaken while I was on the school board, the Audit Implementation Steering Committee, which took a closer look at the KPMG audit results, and the Best Use of Facilities Task Force. Both involved a broad spectrum of community involvement and expertise as well as long term commitment to the community. Both started with the assumption that major closures and divestment would be called for, and both ended with the conclusion that while adjustments would always be needed, and certain select properties were indeed surplus, dramatic closures and sell-offs would not be good stewardship. Both of these considered each school or property's value, as an educational resource and as a community or neighborhood asset and anchor, as well as the cost of owning and operating it or potential proceeds from selling it. A great deal of attention was paid to the role of both neighborhood schools and opt-in programs in making the city an attractive place for families to live. A Long Range Facilities Plan was adopted in 2002.
This time, as before, they started with an assumption that major closures were needed; however, this time, unlike before, facts and alternative perspectives were not allowed to get in the way.
One of the arguments the current school board and administration use in support of school closures is that while there has been a drop in district enrollment since 1970 (about 40%), there has not, allegedly, been a corresponding drop in the district's physical "footprint," (6% according to them).
This is the list of closures, relocations and other physical plant adjustments I could come up with out of my head from the last 40 years or so:
Adams HS (Closed, then Whitaker MS, then closed again)
Brooklyn (became Winterhaven, now proposed to close)
Clarendon (Closing end of this school year.)
Columbia (Now Special Ed site for HS students)
Couch (Metropolitan Learning Center shared space, then Couch School closed and the building became MLC)
Edwards (houses some special ed programs now)
Elliott (became Tubman MS)
Foster (MS special ed site)
Jackson HS (Closed for years, reopened as Jackson MS)
Kellogg (Closing end of this school year.)
Meek (Vocational Village moved there from Glenhaven Site, Meek Elementary closed)
Monroe HS (Formerly Girls Polytechnic, merged with Washington, then both closed. Housed offices and several programs including the Monroe teen parent program, now DaVinci MS.)
Mt. Tabor Annex
Portland Night High School (Doesn't have its own building; housed at Grant after hours, now to be "merged" with Voc. Village at Meek; unclear whether it will remain a distinct program.)
Rieke (Closed for awhile, reopened)
Rose City Park (Closing end of this school year.)
Sacajawea (now a district Head Start site)
Sylvan (Closed and leased for many years, now housing 6th grade due to crowding at West Sylvan.)
Vocational Village (Powell Blvd. site closed, moved to Glenhaven, then to Meek)
Washington HS (Became Child Service Center, now closed and sold.)
Whitaker ("Old Whitaker" on Columbia Blvd.) Closed, then used for itinerant staff offices, then Turnaround School, then Whitaker Lakeside, now leased to NAYA Native American youth program/school)
The enrollment peak in the district followed roughly the kindergarten classes of 1957 - 1959, graduating in 1970 - 1972. During that time, despite a wave of building, schools were crowded, with "portables" installed at many sites. (Some schools had their own peaks earlier, before some of that building took place.) Many of the new buildings were small K-5 schools, with grades 6-8 kept at the larger, older schools, partly because of the expense of building Shop (Industrial Arts) and Home Economics facilities, but also partly because there was a growing recognition that middle school aged students needed more than a self-contained classroom could provide. The district has not really been organized around K-8 schools since the mid '50s, but, until the eighties, programs for grades 6-8 were based on self-contained classrooms with some pullouts and team teaching. This was before special education mandates, before there were libraries in any but high schools, before computer labs and before classes for English Language Learners.
The initial drop in enrollment was precipitous, as baby-boomers had fewer kids, later, and it led to closing ten schools in 1980. (School board members needed police escorts home after the vote.) Five high schools were built during the baby boom years, 1954 – 1967, two on the west side and three on the east side. Four high schools have been closed since, one on the west side and three on the east side.
The conversion to a system based on three levels, K-5, Middle School and High School, took place in the eighties, following a nationwide trend toward Middle Schools and away from both K-8 models and K-6, Junior High (7-9) models. In Portland, this conversion also was a part of our desegregation plan.
As you can see from the list above, not only have quite a few schools been closed over the years, but several have closed and then reopened as needs changed. Good stewardship of this public resource must provide for future as well as current needs, and that means preserving some flexibility; can you imagine the cost to reacquire land and rebuild neighborhood schools? And yes, recent school closures are, right now, influencing the housing decisions of young families.
Many parents and teachers see the departing superintendent as a climber, who used Portland to advance her own career at the expense of our community. Many also think that this school board traded research and deliberation for drama, for being "the deciders." The question is: Is this simply reckless, or is there another agenda? Many school properties are very attractive as development opportunities. So are many parks and other public amenities. But when they are sold they are gone, now and forever. It is our responsibility to future generations to weigh the long-term value of the resource, including the part that's priceless, when considering any divestment of public property.
The district once adopted a strategic plan (still listed in Policies as 0.10.010-P Strategic Plan. See PPS: Policies) that listed this as a core value: "Involving stakeholders in decision-making leads to better outcomes." I may be old-fashioned, but I still believe that. Here's another core value from the same strategic plan: "Adult behavior is a powerful teacher for young people."
While "getting it done" is important, it should not be at the expense of getting it right. There will be a change in the board majority in July. I hope that this new majority will usher in an era of respect for public engagement, respect for professional expertise, and dedication to the long-term vitality of our neighborhoods and city.
May 26, 2007
Posted in guest column.
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