Months after launching a major new initiative on high school improvement, Portland school officials sat down recently to talk with The Skanner about their plans, their goals, and their long-term priorities.
This week, we report on what the officials had to say. Next week, we'll look at the potential downsides and obstacles to massive high school reform.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith says three priorities will guide every decision she makes:
Boosting academic achievement for all students;
Increasing fairness and equity throughout Portland's schools;
Building a sustainable school system that can cope with a projected loss of about 2000 students by 2016.
"We're looking system wide," she told The Skanner. "We're looking at how do we make sure that students have an opportunity to earn college credit in every high school?"
High schools are at the top of Smith's agenda, and she has put together a team to work on a reform plan.
Her goals, she says, are to prevent students from dropping out, to raise academic achievement and to make sure all graduates are prepared for college and a career.
Soon the district plans to ask parents and the community at large to weigh in on some big questions, such as: Should Benson High School become a career center for the whole district? And should students be able to choose a specialized career track, even if it means traveling to another school for those classes?
The Confidence Question
Parents' views on these crucial questions - and much more — will help set Smith's agenda, she says.
The challenges include massive disparities in the number of electives available to students, and aging, decrepit buildings that aren't equipped to offer high-level career classes.
Then there is the major problem of how to rebuild confidence in schools such as Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Marshall. Last year, 545 students transferred out of Marshall, 473 transferred out of Jefferson and 394 transferred out of Roosevelt. Compare that to Cleveland, which gained 294 extra students from outside its area, and Grant, which gained 271.
So just how does the district plan to restore confidence in struggling schools?
The first step will be to make sure that a standard set of courses are offered at every high school, and that each high school offers opportunities to take advanced classes, says John Wilhelmi, a veteran teacher with wide experience across the high school system who is co-leading the high school reform effort. He says the key is making sure the required core classes at each school are equally rigorous and relevant.
"Next year all of our schools should have some kind of accelerated learning opportunities, whether they are Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate, or honors, or dual credit classes through, for example, our partnership with Portland Community College," Wilhelmi says. "Jefferson right now offers some college credit, and they will have AP next year."
The other key point, one that has gone largely unnoticed, is that students at the new small schools are making significant academic gains. (More on that next week in The Skanner.)
Research shows that strong career and technical programs keep students in school and boost math and science scores. That's why high schools have begun to offer students specific career tracks, such as Jefferson's Health Technology program or Marshall's Biz Tech program.
But career and technical opportunities are uneven across the district. Some schools offer as many as100 electives, while others have closer to 30. Even though students can choose only about 15 electives during their school career, some students have far fewer career education choices.
"In the electives, what we offer and how much we offer has really been somewhat random," Wilhelmi said. "We want to array these throughout our schools so they are more intentional and equitable."
Because it would be impossible to put every specialized career track into every school, the district is looking at how best to offer students access to different career pathways, Superintendent Smith said. Some cross-town travel might be required.
"If you want to participate in the World Language program, we'd want you to go to Franklin, for example, she said. "Or maybe you want a program focused on green technology. Not every school is going to offer a World Languages program or a sustainable medicine program or a green tech program. So right now teachers are having a conversation about this, and in a month or two we will be having a series of conversations that will engage the broader community."
To kick off those conversations, the school district has hired a consulting company called Pyramid Communications. Pyramid helped Seattle Public Schools consult with parents, community and business partners to develop a strategic plan.
"We want to hear the community's voices," Wilhelmi said. "We don't want to come to people with the answer."
Decisions made between now and next summer will affect everything from the number and type of career tracks offered at each school to the renovation plans that will decide the design of the buildings.
Partnerships will be essential for the success of the reform effort, Smith said. This year, through a partnership with TriMet, every student at Franklin and Jefferson was given a free bus pass. Smith hopes to expand that program to every high school.
The district also plans to develop a wide range of partnerships. Working with neighboring school districts is under discussion, as well as partnering with Portland businesses to develop work placements and mentorship programs.
One Portland high school that has successfully partnered with businesses is De La Salle North Catholic High School, whose acclaimed internship program finds jobs for students to help finance their school tuition. De La Salle has had significant success in sending mainly low-income students to college.
Portland's business leaders stepped up to the plate to support De La Salle. So do they also have the capacity and will to help deliver career and technical education to the 13,000 or so students in Portland's high schools?
John Wilhelmi said the school district is keen to create these valuable partnerships.
"We will welcome whatever partnerships we can develop so kids can go out and test their skills and see what opportunities are available —and really see the opportunities," he said.
Portland's investment in career education has been centered at Benson High School, known to some proud alumni as the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) of Portland high schools. The investment delivered excellent career and technical education – but for only a small number of students. A career pathways report details four different ways that Benson High's resources could be developed. The decision won't be simple, Wilhelmi said.
"The controversy is that Benson High School would be the one to be converted into a career center," he said. "But Benson has a long tradition of being a comprehensive high school and a lot of people at Benson – and the alumni – want it to continue as a high school."