"If it 'ain't broke don't fix it." That's the message Portland Public Schools is getting in dozens of emails from parents whose children attend the city's most popular high schools, says John Wilhelmi, the administrator in charge of proposals to change Portland's high school system.
The trouble with that idea, Wilhelmi said, is that the system most definitely is broken – to the point it may violate the civil rights of Portland's less affluent students – many of them students of color.
"When you see what's really happening for students in this system it's pretty dismal," Wilhelmi said, as he launched into a 76-page slideshow of graphs and data that portrays a massively unequal school system, where some students find a wealth of opportunities, and others find glass ceilings and road blocks.
About a dozen teachers, brought together by the Oregon Association for Black School Educators, attended a meeting at Portland Community College's Cascade campus to hear Wilhelmi and Charles Hobson explain why high schools need to change and what the school district is proposing to do about it.
|Since 1983, student numbers across the district have dropped from 15,000 to 11,000 and the school district receives 80 cents (inflation adjusted) for every dollar it received then.|
Portland's largest schools bring together students who already have many advantages educationally and financially. Parents at Lincoln High School, for example, raised enough funds this year to hire five extra teachers -- which translates to 25 extra classes every day. But even without such additional funding, because dollars follow students, the largest schools can offer more courses and opportunities to take advanced classes.
Fixing these inequities of size will not by itself close the achievement gap that sees minority and poor kids more likely to fall behind and eventually drop out, and far less likely to graduate on time and finish college. All of Portland's high schools have an achievement gap that shows they do not serve all students equally well.
"Across our schools we had huge achievement gaps in every one of our high schools so even the high schools that we thought of as really serving our students well and as having robust curriculums still had significant achievement gaps," Superintendent Smith told a meeting of The City Club of Portland. At Grant High School, for example, 32 per cent of African American sophomores met the state benchmark for math compared with 83 percent of White students. Smith said that's because Grant has chosen to use its resources for college-level classes rather than spend more on academic support to help students who are less prepared access those courses.
"Grant meets the needs of a number of its students well," Smith said. "It does not prioritize using its sections for support classes ... only four out of 300-plus sections are used for support classes. So part of what would happen at a school like Grant is rebalancing of your course offerings to put priority on some of the support courses."
Jefferson High School, on the other hand, offers just two recently added college-level courses.
The figures show that Portland's graduation rate is around 57 percent, but that varies from 95 percent at Lincoln, 93 percent at Benson and 92 percent at Grant, to 46 percent at BizTech on the Marshall campus, 59 percent at Renaissance Arts on Marshall campus 59 at Arts Communication and Technology on the Roosevelt campus and 69 percent at Jefferson.
"Depending on where you live decides the affluence of the school you attend and the opportunities available," said Hobson. "To me that's a civil rights violation of the worst type."
The figures show that Portland's graduation rate is around 57 percent, but that varies from 95 percent at Lincoln, 93 percent at Benson and 92 percent at Grant, to 46 percent at BizTech on the Marshall campus, 59 percent at Renaissance Arts on Marshall campus, 59 percent at Arts Communication and Technology on the Roosevelt campus and 69 percent at Jefferson.
The reaction from parents who are happy with their schools is one sign of the intense political pressure that the school board will confront in May or June, when they vote on a final plan that will change school boundaries, change transfer policies and reduce the number of neighborhood high schools.
The plan would not close any schools, but it would turn some high schools into smaller "focus" schools – which would specialize in some area, and assign places through a lottery. The focus schools could offer an alternative for students who do better in smaller settings, or they could offer a specialized program.
"We've been getting numerous emails, mostly we're hearing the voices of parents of students in the more affluent schools, because they fear they may lose something in the process," Wilhelmi said, "But we are not hearing from the rest of the community who will be affected."
Go to Changes Ahead For Portland's High Schools
Part Three: Legacy of Mistrust
Part Four: Are small schools succeeding?
Snapshot of Two Schools
Lincoln High School
Jefferson High School
|Free and Reduced School Meals||7%||67%|
|Designated Talented and Gifted||27%||7%|
|English Language Learners||1%||9%|
|Special Educational Needs||4%||21%|
|Neighborhood Students Attending this School||84%||26%|
|9th Graders Need Help To Meet Grade Standard||27%||62%|
|10th Graders Meet or Exceed Standard: Reading||92%||36%|
|10th Graders Meet or Exceed Standard: Math||85%||17%|
|World Language Courses offered||17||3|
|College Level (AP/IB) Courses Offered||26||2 -- up from 0|
|4-year Graduation Rate||95%||69%|
|4-year College Completion Rate||51%||10%|