Jefferson High School students were angry as they walked out of school with picket signs and marched across North Killingsworth Street, stopping traffic with chants of "Save our school."
"A lot of other schools have a lot more than us," said Freshman Erica Maranowski during the protest. "We don't have the same opportunity."
Seattle residents would have recognized the scene; it's the same thing that happened at Rainier Beach High School six years ago, when teens protested the school's deteriorating academics and demanded that the principal be removed.
Jefferson and Rainier have had a lot in common over the past generation: a predominantly Black student body, few electives, high absenteeism, low test scores, and championship basketball teams.
However a major difference is emerging between the two: Rainier Beach is officially off the "needs improvement" list. Last year more African American students passed the Washington state standardized aptitude tests in math at Rainier Beach than at any other school in the district, while Jefferson's much-vaunted new "academy" system is on the brink of collapse.
And even as local communities in Seattle and in Portland fight over the best ways to bridge the racial achievement gap, federal education policies under the No Child Left Behind Act are on track to chip away at state education funds and worsen the punishments of low-achieving schools as the law's final deadline for improvements approaches in 2014.
A Decade After Reconstitution ... the exact same problems
According to the "Jefferson High School Redesign Plan: Creating a Desirable Place to Learn" by Portland Public Schools, the problems Jefferson was experiencing prior to 1998 were:
• Lagging academics
• Significant population of special needs students
• Significant population of economically disadvantaged students
• Trouble attracting neighborhood students
• High Absenteeism
• Discipline problems
• Lack of administrative continuity
• Appearance of high teacher absenteeism
• Insufficient community involvement
• Perception as an unsafe school
• Unwelcoming climate of learning
Jefferson – A Failing Grade?
This year was supposed to be about change at Jefferson. The rollout of the new four-part "academy" system two years ago, after more than a year of planning and public hearings, gave students and community members a sense of optimism.
They had an accomplished new principal, the mayor announced plans to move City Hall to Jefferson for a week as a gesture of solidarity and support, and, it appeared, there was more community involvement … a new start.
But as the school year draws to a close, many students tell The Skanner nothing has changed at the school and the same problems remain 10 years after reconstitution.
This spring, juniors Sydney Breazile and Marie Sonies began mobilizing students against many of Jefferson's longstanding problems, which they ticked off on their fingers like a laundry list: Rampant truancy. Grade inflation. An uncaring administration. The loss of the college center. Lack of electives. More teacher cuts expected next year. No Advanced Placement classes. No plan to improve failing academics. The apparent loss of the academy system itself.
And that list was just the tip of an iceberg.
"We feel we're getting the bottom of the barrel," Sonies said.
It's unclear how much influence this group of students may have had on Mayor Tom Potter's visit to Jefferson on May 12 (See Sidebar at the bottom of this story), in which he invited students to hear his report on progress made in a series of goals promised to the school.
To Potter's surprise, students invited to join his "Listening Session" went into a rant about the school's lack of direction – and the lack of political leadership in turning it around.
Even before the Mayor's event, students distributed more than two thousand protest fliers outlining their concerns.
Then two weeks ago, a diverse group of about 100 students staged the walkout during their fifth period class. The protest wound its way around the high school onto North Killingsworth Street, disrupting traffic and gathering a crowd of curious onlookers.
Rainier Beach – Years of Turmoil, Turning Around
Like Jefferson, Rainier Beach boasts a school built for around 1,100 students, today filled to less than half its capacity.
Both schools are, in many ways, seen as the heart of their city's Black community – disproportionately African American, urban, low-income, and torn by the gentrification of their neighborhoods, North Portland and the South End.
Nevertheless the Rainier Beach Vikings basketball team has won the state championship four times; the Democrats have triumphed at the state level three times, including this year — four times if you include the girls' 5A state victory, also this year.
White flight from both Jefferson and Rainier Beach has led their respective school districts to ponder plans to attract more students.
And in both places, the fight over fixing their schools has pitted Black families against White, teachers against administrators, and newcomers against neighborhood natives.
In Seattle, a seemingly-perfect idea to shore up Rainier Beach with a high-tech academy led to bitter confrontations in 2006. Trish Millines Dziko of the Technology Access Foundation proposed that Rainier open up half its campus to a new computer-based special program aimed at minority students, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dziko, a Black woman and a millionaire former manager at Microsoft, somehow inflamed the parents at Rainier Beach, who repeatedly rebuffed her proposal – a stand that caused White onlookers to scratch their heads.
"I'm totally interested in talking to people if we're going to sit down and strategize how to make things different," Dziko told Seattle Weekly. "I have no interest in sitting around jawing about how the Man doesn't give us this, the Man doesn't give us that."
After a few months of meetings, proposals and public hearings, Dziko's high-tech academy went on to build programs in Federal Way and elsewhere, and Rainier Beach stayed small and intact.
Bleeding to Death
Jefferson, with 243 approved transfers this year, has the highest emigration rate of any school in the district (Marshall is second with 200). Many sources say the best and brightest in the Jefferson neighborhood are now going to different schools, leaving the school lopsided with more at-risk, special needs and lower performing students.
There are currently only 486 high school students enrolled at the main Jefferson campus. Counting grades six through eight, there are an additional 143 students in the young men's and women's academies. Jefferson spends one of the highest amounts per pupil and has one of the lowest student to teacher ratios.
These numbers help feed a common belief among some students and staff – a belief officially denied by school and district officials – that Jefferson is being bled to death.
Ten Years After Reconstitution
The TAF experience in Seattle stands in sharp contrast to that of Jefferson.
Ironically, many of the centerpieces of the No Child law – reconstitution of low-achieving schools, an open transfer policy, and reorganization – have already been tried at Jefferson, with undeniably dismal results.
In fact, it almost seems as if Jefferson has been a laboratory for experiments in education reform.
A 2006 report by the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute lists a whopping 34 "Failed Reforms" proposed or instituted at the School of Champions since 1974, when the Portland school district issued its first study chronicling the school's low achievement and truancy problems.
In 1998, after nearly 25 years of struggling with poor academics and attendance, Jefferson's teachers and administrators were all fired and forced to reapply for their jobs, in what school district officials said was an effort to remake the institution.
Several members of the Jefferson staff who spoke to The Skanner point to the reconstitution as a watershed event that accelerated the school's decline.
The problem, teachers say, is that reconstitution left the school without a sense of history, and a lack of mentors for younger teachers. The result has opened a revolving door — since reconstitution, Jefferson has seen eight different principals and 13 administrators, as well as a declining student and teacher population.
For many years – since way before No Child Left Behind — the district's open transfer policy has allowed students the choice of attending different schools, fueling a self-perpetuating problem. As enrollment declines, so does state funding. As funding declines, so do the number of teachers at the school. As the population of teachers dwindles, fewer classes – such as AP or electives – can be offered.
Currently, there are no AP classes at Jefferson. Students told The Skanner they are hard-pressed to even get the 24 credits required to graduate. A failed class in the twilight years of high school spells night school and GED for many Jefferson students – if they even have the support, motivation or time to do it.
After a 2-year-old experiment with the newest academy system, the district appears poised to change Jefferson once again. The young men's and women's academies will remain, but there are plans in the works to merge the Arts and Sciences academies that many teachers say never materialized in the first place.
According to the district, Jefferson will lose another 2.32 teaching positions next year. Principal Cynthia Harris was unable to say which positions might be cut; because the number represents money, school administrators often get creative by creating several part-time positions
Lavert Robertson, administrator for the Arts and Technology academy, says there are plans to offer at least one AP class for next year.
Meanwhile, an array of charter schools is siphoning students away – out of approximately 1,600 high school-aged students in the neighborhood, only 403 attend Jefferson.
And if past trends are any guide, Jefferson itself may someday be reconstituted as a charter school – or closed down altogether if they are still classified as "unacceptable" by the deadline, which is fall of 2014.
The Debate Over Charter Schools
Zein El-Amine is a Washington D.C.-based community organizer and co-author of a new book, "Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools."
"Your story about a school with predominantly Black and low-income students – it's the story of a thousand schools around the country where you have Black and poor communities," he says.
According to El-Amine, the federal government's No Child approach – widely accepted in local communities – is a market-based business model of "operations and accountability."
The veteran of many campaigns against school closure in the national capitol, El-Amine says most of the district and political leaders at the forefront of the No Child reform campaign are "not educators, they're educationalizers" – not individuals with classroom teaching experience, but rather theoreticians and business people.
He says in Washington D.C. the drumbeat of reform has focused on teachers rather than on communities as a whole.
"Officials scapegoat the teachers and ignore the immediate needs and problems in the communities and the families," he says.
"It doesn't matter what the educators believe because the overriding force of urban centers is gentrification – displacement," according to El-Amine. "The public education system is being re-arranged to serve the new population, not the indigenous communities that have been there for generations."
Next week: In part two of this series, The Skanner looks deeper at the problems plaguing Jefferson and Rainier Beach, and some of the possible solutions put forth by Self Enhancement, Inc., Rainier Beach officials and Portland Public Schools. We will also have more information about No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, and how to reform the Educational Reform Movement.
A 'Dog and Pony Show'
Mayor Potter said his week at Jefferson was the best week of his entire administration. In January, after the mayor's office packed their bags and the cameras and notebooks of the local media went to follow another story … Jefferson went back to normal. That sentiment is almost universal among students and teachers that spoke with The Skanner for this story.
The ensuing media barrage created a lot of good coverage. But as for real change, Breazile and others say the mayor's week was "like putting on a stage play." The halls were spotless; fights between students were delayed; students were encouraged to wear business casual clothing.
"It was a dog and pony show," says one teacher.
During Potter's follow-up visit on May 12, many one-sentence answers about progress at their school were more telling than the preceding complaints.
"I honestly haven't seen any change," said Jay'Neisha Davis, a junior, who also said she did feel challenged by her classes, a remark that stood apart from many classmates.
Dennise Zavala wanted to know why all of Potter's programs seemed to help only a handful of students. Of the 10 initiatives, few deal directly with some of Jefferson's chief problems – problems that may not have been brought to the mayor's attention in January. Several provide mentoring or job shadowing positions, one provides training in the arts, another provides one scholarship to Concordia, and two work to get students involved in the Multnomah Youth Commission.
"Where do other students fall? They're left behind," she said.
Another student brought up the fairly common belief that the school district was playing a not-so-inactive role to close Jefferson.
"It feels like they're breaking us down little by little," said Andreya Hudson, a senior.
When asked by Judith Mowry, the Listening Session's moderator, what changes some students had seen, Zavala answered after a brief pause.
"The school's a little bit cleaner," she said.