Friday, January 25, 2013

Another Way to “Balance” Jefferson Cluster

Oregon SOS supports "no more closures" of our public schools.   Join members of the community this Saturday at noon (with a PPS forum following at 1 pm) at Jefferson High School to support keeping the Jefferson Cluster of schools open.  The following blog post is by Elizabeth Thiel, a parent and teacher at Vernon School in NE Portland.

Again, Portland Public Schools is talking about fiddling around with schools in the Jefferson Cluster in a process called “enrollment balancing.”  The district has proposed closing Vernon, merging Vernon with King, closing Woodlawn, merging Chief Joseph and Ockley Green, relocating Access, and/or moving Boise Elliott/Humbolt to Tubman, all as possible ways to achieve “optimal enrollment numbers”. 

People in the Jefferson cluster have been through this before.  We were among those experimented on with the great K-8 transition 7 years ago.  We had all our neighborhood middle schools taken away.  We’ve seen a boys’ academy and a girls’ academy come and go.  Jefferson High School has been redesigned more times, I think, than anyone can keep track of. Last spring, two of our schools were closed without warning or discussion.   I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we are tired of it.

Interestingly, the problem with enrollment in Jefferson cluster is not that the neighborhood population doesn’t support so many schools.  There are more than enough kids living within our boundaries to fill all our schools to “optimal enrollment” and then some.  The reason for all this fiddling is that most of those kids don’t go to school in Jefferson cluster.

I am fortunate to teach a fine groups of students at Vernon, my neighborhood school, where I also send my own daughter.  This year, I teach 6th and 7th graders.  In a neighborhood where 72% of the population is white, 90% of my students this year are of color.  Despite the increasing affluence of my neighborhood, most of my students are living in poverty.  Where are all the white kids?  Apparently, they have transferred elsewhere, like so many others who live in the cluster.

The district has created a situation where, among middle-class white families in our part of the city, the norm is to transfer out.  Within Vernon’s boundary, 51% of kids go to school somewhere else. The district's transfer policy is designed to encourage this, as is the existence of every special-focus program, magnet, and charter school in our city—to entice families away from their neighborhood school in favor or something better, something special.  Excellent as they may be, these schools serve only a select segment of the population, and promise to deliver something more than what students can get from their neighborhood school.  They also offer families a school community relatively free from the stresses and challenges that come with poverty.

In Jefferson cluster, this transfer system has created a two-tiered system, in which some families (mostly white) choose from the district’s menu of special options and neighborhood programs, and transfer out; other families (mostly of color and lower income) stay.  Our neighborhood schools then suffer not only from under-enrollment and lack of programming, but also a concentration of the challenges associated with poverty.

In a city that prides itself on being liberal and open-minded, we have a school system that maintains a disturbingly stark separation of kids based on race.  This segregation is made possible by our transfer system, and by the way families can easily justify transferring out of their diverse neighborhood school to one that is predominately white and middle class because it is considered common knowledge that that school is better. 

We can change this system.  Portland’s neighborhoods are not nearly as segregated as our schools are.  We can build neighborhood schools that integrate kids of all colors and income levels, and provide them all with a rich academic and social experience.  In fact, their experience will be infinitely richer simply because they are together. 

As a teacher, I know that this is achievable within the walls of our schools.  The hard part is getting communities to stand together in support of the schools where they live, and getting the school district to stop enabling families to “escape” their neighborhood schools.  If so many people weren’t transferring out, there would be no escape frenzy in the first place.

Instead, the district is now talking about closing yet another school in Northeast Portland due to “under-enrollment.”  At Vernon, only 49% of neighborhood children attend their neighborhood school, and the capture rate is even lower at King and Woodlawn.  Rather than shutting down one of these neighborhood beacons, why not balance enrollment by seriously limiting families' option to transfer out?  If we truly need to close schools, why not consider any one of the districts’ special option programs, instead of the neighborhood schools that our communities depend on?  If the district is truly serious about equity, this would certainly be a more reasonable way to concentrate enrollment and save money. 

Of course, this solution may not go over well with families at those special option programs.  They want the best for their kids, as they ought to.  Instead of providing access for these families to excellent schools through the transfer system, we need a public school system that delivers a top-notch education in every neighborhood, to every family.

No family should have to feel the panic to escape an under-supported neighborhood school.  That’s why PPS ought to spend its time and money investing in the neighborhood schools we have, instead of this endless (and expensive!) game of reconfiguring.   Perhaps PPS should start with a simple PR campaign, touting the excellent teachers and programs already in place in Jefferson Cluster schools. We have lots to be proud of, but the district hasn’t done much to educate the community and entice local families to give their neighborhood schools a chance. 

As a parent and a teacher in this cluster, I truly believe that we can offer a top-notch education to every child, from every kind of family, if only we have the support of the community, and of the district. We don’t need another school in Jefferson Cluster be closed, merged, or reconfigured.  We've been through that enough already in the last seven years.  Instead, we need PPS to take bold leadership in favor of excellent, equitable neighborhood schools for ALL children in our city, and we need our whole community to stand up of for the right of every child to have an excellent education.

Elizabeth Thiel
NE Portland 

1 comment:

  1. Why is it that when a neighborhood school is not doing well it needs to point fingers at other schools by saying they are taking their students away? Instead of closing those very few special-focus schools why not change the focus of your school to bring back your neighborhood students. Punishing the few schools that are doing amazing, innovative and unique curriculum is not the answer. When we tried to bring a special-focus school to Jefferson Cluster we were told by the principal of one of these schools that the teachers and neighborhood wouldn't want it. Really? Check again, because I think these are the kinds of programs that will keep neighborhood students at their schools. Teachers and administrators need to change it up and do something different if you expect parents, who only want the best form of education possible, to enroll their child in their neighborhood school.