The idea sounds like a good one: update the structure of Portland Public High Schools to accommodate the changing population and needs of an ever-developing higher education platform. The unfortunate thing is that the plan may ultimately be less about updating individual schools, meeting their needs and helping them succeed, and more about trying to creating an equal divide across the district of offerings and students.
In representing the board at a recent Grant Cluster Parents for a Thoughtful High School Redesign meeting, Portland school board member David Wyde laid out the issue:
"It would be wonderful if we could offer a program like the one at Grant and have sixteen hundred kids attend that school and that program at all nine of our high school campuses. It would be great if we could do that. There's one problem – we don't have nine times sixteen hundred kids. We cannot offer this program, with this number of kids, and you can't offer this kind of program without this number of kids. We can't do this on all nine campuses."
It's a bitterly painful irony that just weeks after Oregon voters approved two revolutionary tax measures to fund social services, including schools, that the Portland Public School district will be meeting to discuss closing anywhere between one and three community high schools as part of their High School Redesign Plan.
The plan, which had its genesis in cluster meetings and is heavily based on population data submitted by Portland State University, has the potential to create a bitter battle in Portland that pits neighborhood against neighborhood and the east side against the west.
The first step in this plan takes place on Monday, February 8th, where a resolution (which has not been posted to the PPS site yet) will be read to the committee. This resolution is reported to contain the number of community schools which would be closed under this new plan. In March the school board will vote on this proposal and then in June they will specify which schools are to be closed.
In the interim, the PPS Board along with the school superintendent and staff will work on developing the ultimate plan for the neighborhood schools. Part of this process will be to open a request for proposal process for proposed 'focus schools'. These 'focus schools' are a kindler gentler way of saying 'magnet school,' without all the historical baggage and issues which go along with them. They are, however, truly magnet schools focused on specific vocational categories and open to district wide admission through a lottery.
Before moving to NE Portland, I lived in the SW suburbs with my kids who attended school in the Beaverton School District. In that district our middle school had a very poor reputation. Almost every family on our block scrambled to try to get their kids into a magnet program, an oasis against a failing school. In the developing PPS plans, these 'focus schools' seem like they are on track to provide a similar oasis.
Unfortunately, a core issue with the school system – necessary capital investment to bring many of the neighborhood schools up to modern code – does not seem to be an active part of this plan. The PPS plan, which is being pitched as 'budget neutral,' is more of a cost cutting program than a program designed to meet the needs of the individual schools. Grant High School Vice Principle Kim Patterson explains, "This building is so antique, I don't have a PA system. If something troubling happens I can't get on a PA system."
The PSS phased approach to dealing with the school design also is an issue, by deciding how many schools to close before a comprehensive plan is developed. It pushes the discussion towards a singular direction, running under the assumption that the answer is closures. This assumption is more than just a fiscal move; it appears to be a stark and radical rethinking of education in Portland. After speaking with Pam Knowles and listening to David Wyde speak I got the unmistakable impression that the prevailing focus of the redesign is equality.
Trying to create a 'fair and equal' school system is a wonderful ideal but it doesn't take into account the reality of the diversity of the Portland Public School District. The unfortunate truth is that no matter how many schools PPS closes or how much shuffling it does of its student body, the offerings at some schools will be better than others. One of the inherent things about neighborhood schools is that they often are a reflection of the people who live in the neighborhood. In some neighborhoods parent involvement, demographics and socio-economic factors create an environment to support programs which simply could not work in other neighborhoods.
The good news in all this is that the PPS High School plan is not set in stone. While it may seem to be a freight train moving in a disastrous direction, it's not too late for parents across Portland to get involved. Fixing Portland schools is an important task but it needs to be more comprehensive. There are still issues that linger from the K-8 transitions that need to be addressed and serious overcrowding at many of the very feeder schools that this high school redesign targets. The school board also needs to acknowledge that this endeavor isn't budget neutral and that there are serious facility issues that need to be addressed as a critical part of any high school plan. Finally PPS needs to preserve the schools in the district which do work and are successful. It would be disastrous for them to close a sucessful school in a failed attempt to try to raise the bar across the district.
Here is video of Pam Knowles & David Wyde Speaking to the Grant Cluster Parents for a Thoughtful High School Redesign at Grant Highschool
For more info on the PPS High School Redesign Plan: