High School Redesign – Too Much, Not Enough, or Just Right?

Kristin Teigen

Will requiring families to invest in their neighborhood, and promising schools of similar quality, achieve the tremendously elusive equality? What about Marshall and Benson? Will there ever be a process in which everybody is happy?

The process of redesigning Portland’s high schools has been a long, somewhat arduous but never boring one. For over two years, the District has been trying to banish the reminders of the process overseen by former Superintendent Vicki Phillips, in which she closed middle schools, restructured grade schools and reshuffled boundaries seemingly overnight, without any significant public input.

On June 2, the Portland School Board will hear Superintendent Carole Smith deliver revisions to a plan she submitted in April. Its ultimate goal is to create a equitable high school system that closes the achievement gap and improves what is now a horrible graduation rate.

This plan, in contrast to the K-8 process, was created after a long series of public meetings at each Portland high school, and after committees, studies, and input from every possible group of stakeholders.

And what was the result?

While we don’t yet know what the revisions are, here are the highlights of the first plan.

  1. Students who live in a particular district will no longer be able to transfer out of that area, unless they have been a part of a language immersion program in their K-8 school.
  2. Marshall High School will be closed and re-opened to host a series of small schools within the school that will have a focus on a particular subject or interest area.
  3. Benson High School, which is now a magnet school with a voc-tech focus, will now host students from other schools for a half day program with a curriculum similar to its current focus.
  4. Jefferson High School will now have a partnership with Portland Community College that allows its students to take supplementary classes as a way to get a head start on college.
  5. Districts will be redrawn to ensure that each school, for the most part, will begin to have a similar number of students.
  6. Every high school would offer a similar curriculum, with each student having access to advanced courses, with the goal of achieving excellence in each school.

In many ways, the first step, that of doing away with transfers, would go a long way toward increasing equity in Portland’s High Schools. As it stands now, before reforms, families can purchase a low cost home (the least expensive three bedroom house in the Jefferson area are around $170K versus $370K in the Lincoln area) but can easily send their children elsewhere. This means that the neighborhood families may not be investing in the long-term success of their local high school. More fundamentally, it also means that, because tax dollars follow the child, schools like Jefferson with their low enrollments (around 400 now, in contrast to Lincoln’s 1400), don’t have the funds to offer a full array of academic options.

So, while students in schools like Lincoln and Cleveland can take practically any class you can imagine, from advanced chemistry to college level history to a wide variety of arts and languages, students at Jefferson don’t even have what many would consider to be the most basic of options. Science, history, English – all are limited at Jefferson.

This is reflected, in some ways, by the graduation rates at schools like Jefferson and also Roosevelt, which now are well below 70%, while Cleveland and Lincoln are well over 80%.

The District, by simply requiring that students to stay in their attendance area, will ensure that Jefferson will more than double in attendance. Twice the students means twice the money. Twice the number of classes, twice the number of teachers. That is, if people actually stay. The whole plan might benefit real estate agents the most.

A few parts of the plan have raised eyebrows, including the fact that the District has proposed some startling new boundaries (here’s the map). Buckman/Da Vinci students from SE Portland will now go across the river to Lincoln, instead of the closer Grant or Cleveland? Instead of sending kids in some portions of the SW hills to Roosevelt, which is closer, they will still go to Lincoln? Really?

To be sure, many believe that these new boundaries are indications that the District doesn’t want a fight, at least with well-off families. Considering what was rumored to be the plan (closing Grant! closing Franklin!), it is far more mild than anticipated.

Yet for those whose schools are dramatically changing, like Benson and Marshall, the shift hardly feels slight. And for folks wanting a whole-scale shake-up in the way the District is operated as a way to achieve equity, well, they are not happy.

Is it enough? Too much? Just right?

Will requiring families to invest in their neighborhood, and in return promising schools of similar quality, achieve the tremendously elusive equality? What about Marshall and Benson? Will there ever be a process in which everybody is happy?

After years of public feedback, the opportunities for citizens to have a role in answering these questions are drawing to a close. While the Board is not taking public testimony on Wednesday night, here is a list of opportunities to still have your voice heard. The site includes an option for on-line input.

After the meeting on Wednesday night, the Board will finalize the plan in June, with the changes being fully implemented by 2011. So, if you have something important to say, a perspective to lend, now is the time.

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    I find the whole PPS high school redesign process distressing not because of what it is doing but because of what it is not doing. It is not redesigning high school.

    Portland in this effort is trying to recreate high schools in terms of curriculum, technology, and buildings very similar to the high school I attended in the 1950’s on the other coast of the US. Only this time, Portland neighborhood activist want to do away with the racial and class inequities of the past: a very desirable and necessary goal.

    And they may achieve that goal but the cost will be great: Schools will be models of the past. Students will be prisoners of their neighborhood schools. Foreign language programs at the high school level will never flourish because the development of foreign language immersion programs at the elementary school level is already crippled by the concerns of neighborhood school activists (resulting in elementary schools that are dumbed down (not learning a second language) and which produce insufficient graduates with skills necessary for the global economy and maintaining world peace). All students will not have laptop computers and technology will have little impact on when, where and how students learn.

    Even at this late date, and within the high school system that Portland Public Schools is currently designing, there are two proposals that could open opportunities for more students and move Portland toward a 21st century high school system: (1) provide every high school student with a laptop computer and aggressively push online education (in all its forms: in class, hybrid/blended, and independent) and (2) pay for high school students to study abroad for a high school year.

    What distresses me the most after attending many of the redesign process meeting is that Portland parents may be about to get the high school system that most of them want.

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    Just as a clarification -- the Marshall "focus school" has not yet been defined. All we know is the proposal as it stands has the students of east Portland spending an hour each way on a bus to Franklin or Madison high schools, and that Marshall will be dramatically under capacity, perhaps to be leased to another agency.

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      I haven't spent much time studying the proposal yet, but if that's true, that's absurd.

      Mayor Adams has talked about making Portland a "20-minute city" - in which the things you need are within a 20-minute walk, a 20-minute bus ride, a 20-minute bike, or a 20-minute drive (depending what the need is.)

      Certainly, if that's the framework, every student should be no more than a 20-minute drive from school - maybe 30 minutes by bus.

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        Just as nutty as busing kids from Buckman through downtown to Lincoln when Cleveland or Grant would be faster, or avoid sending West Hills kids across the St. Johns Bridge to Roosevelt instead of hauling all the way to Lincoln. Lincoln will not resemble a neighborhood school in any way

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        I meant at least an hour each day, not an hour each way. Doesn't make it any less absurd... especially if PPS winds up leasing Marshall to a capacity-starved agency... our children bused out and inconvenienced to save another agency.

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    What bugs me about the (now-revised) proposal is the emphasis that it's proponents (including Kristin) place on equity. This proposal emphasizes community-comprehensive schools. If we were designing a system which placed equity as the highest priority, it would look different.
    What is striking about Kristin's column is how it points out the inequity in the proposal in the very sentence that follows her statement about how it promotes equity. She notes how there is no affordable housing in the Lincoln cluster, but is oblivious to how that creates inequity if we refuse to allow students to transfer. Our neighborhoods are stratified by race and class. Requiring students to attend their neighborhood school cements those differences in our schools. I thought we had reached consensus some time ago as a society that separate is not equal. Portland has said we value neighborhood schools. So be it. But let's not pat ourselves on the back and say that resolves the inequity in our high schools. It does not.
    I think this is apparent from the fact that one of the two schools that is substantially altered in the proposal is Benson -- the one diverse school in our system that takes students from all over the city and gives them all the same opportunity to succeed together, in one place.
    Superintendent Smith has suggested we can foster some diversity in neighborhood schools by moving school boundaries. But I fail to see how her plan to move Boise-Eliot to Jefferson while sending Buckman to Lincoln accomplishes that.
    I commend the School District for realizing that our current system is inequitable and that something needs to be done. Perhaps moving toward neighborhood schools without transfers helps resolve some of the inequity between our schools, but I am afraid that it will create almost as many issues as it solves.

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    The "revisions" are an insult to the hundreds of Marshall community members who participated in the public comment period. If all school district staff got out of a month of public comment was that incoming Marshall freshmen don't want uncertainty this fall, they weren't listening very hard.

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    I think the elephant in the room here is Jefferson, as David Sarashon's Oregonian column pointed out today. Portland can't afford to have nine high schools, maybe not even eight. But nobody (including me) wants to tell Portland's African American community that they're going to shafted once again by closing Jefferson.

    I'm happy that my son will get to continue his program at Benson, and I was happy to see the nod Carole Smith gave to making CTE available at more schools.

    I feel bad for Marshall's students, who love their school. I feel sad that the boundaries really do protect mostly white affluent schools. I have found tremendous value for my son in Benson's diversity. It does seem that the most change is being asked of those least able to organize against it.

    I am, however, heartened that Ms. Smith and the Board are honoring our "Portland Process," where the officials throw out a plan, citizens weigh in, and they change the plan. That is why there is no Home Depot at the east end of the Burnside.

    I also want to thank the school board. This is an awful dilemma and coming up with a solution that's fiscally responsible, provides a high-quality education to Portland's children, and respects Portland sensibilities is a difficult and thankless task. These folks work pretty hard, and for no pay at that.

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