|Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz asks the Portland Public Schools Board not to close the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy because of the detrimental impact it will have on the local economy. The all-girls school has a math and science focus.|
UPDATE: Portland Public Schools spokesman Matt Shelby confirmed Tuesday that the district has moved to "draft the formal resolutions" to close the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy despite impassioned pleas from the school's community and local elected leaders.
Shelby corrected an earlier version of this story, which said that the district "is closing" Tubman; the vote is next Monday, April 23.
The district will also be voting in May on whether to close down Another North Portland school, Humboldt, and merge its students with Boise-Eliot because neither school has enough students, district officials say.
At a "study session" held last night – the last opportunity for public input before the closure decision – State Sen. Chip Shields apologized to the Portland Public Schools Board for "the hand you were given" by the legislature earlier this year, which has resulted in a $27.5 million cut to PPS's budget; last year PPS faced $20 million in cuts.
Shields was joined by State Rep. Lew Frederick and Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in pleading with the district to reconsider, even pledging help in fundraising, public relations and marketing to help the school attract more students.
All three cited the impact of the Tubman school's closure on the local economy – because it is an all-girls school focusing on math and science, the three officials said it is crucial in maintaining the kind of local workforce that will draw companies to the area.
Shields specifically told the Board that local creative community heavy-hitters Charlie Burr of Edelman Public Relations and Mark Weiner of Winning Mark, among others, had volunteered to help the school build its student base – a key point because many parents have complained that the district never promoted the school to families, and as a result few people even know it exists.
"If we're going to grow our way out of this revenue shortage I think we need to pay attention to how schools impact our local economy," Shields said. "One of the reasons businesses grow here is because there's a smart workforce that understands basic math and science."
"The school board will vote on the YWLA closure and the Humboldt consolidation separate from the proposed budget on April 23," Shelby said Tuesday afternoon. "Last night, they directed staff to draft the formal resolutions."
PREVIOUS STORY: Monday night's Portland Public Schools Board "study session" is shaping up to be the Waterloo of the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy.
Back on the chopping block after many years of barely escaping the budget axe, Tubman, the city's only public all-girls school, is once again fighting for its life, as is Humboldt, which is scheduled to be absorbed by Boise Eliot.
Portland City Commissioner candidate Teressa Raiford brought a contingent of the Tubman girls and their families to the City Hall reception for newly hired Office of Equity and Human Rights Director Dante James on Friday, April 6.
"I thought if they are in a leadership academy they should test out their leadership right here," Raiford told The Skanner News. "We started out with the idea at 8 o'clock this morning and now it's – what? – 4:30? That's not bad," Raiford said, surveying the City Hall atrium where small groups of girls dressed in deep purple surrounded elected officials, bureau chiefs and other VIPS.
"Well I think that as a school it has a lot of potential and I believe that the school district should let it stay for a few more years to see how it expands, and how the students improve," said senior Meda Pulla.
City Council contenders Teressa Raiford, left, and incumbent Commissioner Amanda Fritz, right, both running for City Commissioner #1. Raiford encouraged the Tubman girls to attend the reception for Fritz' new Equity Office.
"By going to the school in the beginning I never thought about going into engineering, but then after going to the school and taking some engineering classes I found out that I really like engineering and I want to be an engineer," said her twin sister Ansallah.
"I'm a senior and so now I'm going next year to PSU, and also in the academy I managed to get a scholarship to go to PSU, a $3,000 renewable scholarship," Ansallah said. "So it's really helped me a lot and I hope it can stay open so it can help other girls too."
Seventh grader Leah Montgomery shared an even more personal side to how the closure will impact her life.
"Well I think it is very sad that we're having our school close down because the school has changed me in so many different ways that it gave me the education I needed," she said.
"When I came to school I was at a fourth grade math level, and when I moved into seventh grade I was upgraded to a fifth grade level," she said.
"I progressed as fast as I could and I had so many different tutors, and they helped me with all my emotional problems," Montgomery said.
"I had counseling and at the NAYA Center I got into sports," she said. "This school is about creating leaders one girl at a time and I've been in the leadership class and the championships, and I just wish this school could have one last chance."
It remains unclear whether James, the city's new Equity director, or Chief of Police Mike Reese, or state Rep. Lew Frederick, or any of the multitude of others at the Friday reception will able to sway the school board's vote on Tubman's closure.
Rep. Lew Frederick hears from a student at the Tubman leadership academy.
James, however, was impressed by the girls' showing.
"They certainly are making themselves heard," he said.
The Monday board session – designed for input and discussion on a variety of issues but not a final vote on the budget – is from 5 to 9 p.m., with public comment scheduled at 5 and the budget discussion about the Tubman/Humboldt school closures at 6:20 p.m.
To address the panel you must sign up in advance; find out how here.
The final vote on school closures is expected at the regular board meeting May 14.
Police Chief Mike Reese and Tubman academy students discussed the fate of the school.
"The School Choice lottery will be open until April 13 for current sixth and seventh graders who would like to choose another school with available space," the board's website says.
"In addition to lottery choices, middle grades girls have a guaranteed space at their neighborhood school. Enrollment & Transfer Center staff will be at upcoming school meetings to assist families with lottery and other choices."
The Tubman neighborhood school is the Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies – which is where the Young Women's Academy started, during one of Jefferson's many, many redesigns.
In fact as the district prepares to pull the plug on Tubman, many observers say it is killing the only vestige of proven success emerging from Jefferson; the other "academies," including the boys' school, have all been shut down.
Humboldt, where the student body is 60 percent African American, was designated one of the Oregon Department of Education's Beacon Schools in 2008.
"The purpose of the Beacon schools is to provide models of successful school wide beginning reading programs," the ODE's website says. "These schools will serve as demonstration sites for schools throughout the state to visit."
Commissioner Fritz, left, listens to Tubman mom Jyothi Pulla speak about the district's process for closing Tubman.
One Mom's Story
Jyothi Pulla, Meda and Ansallah's mother, is livid about not just the closure, but the way it has been unveiled. Even though her daughters graduate out of the school at the end of the year, she has worked overtime to raise awareness of the unfairness of the district's proposed cuts.
"The criticism has been that it's a small school – the enrollment numbers are low, but what people don't know is why our numbers have been low," she said.
"A lot of people don't know that this school exists as an all-girl school, there is very little awareness in this city about the existence of this school. The people know it as a middle school, maybe," she said.
"There's one ex-principal of Tubman, he was here at Tubman for 15 years, Mr. Coakley, he didn't even know this had been turned into an all-girls school until two months ago. So can you imagine? So if people don't know that we exist, how can we get the word out?"
Pulla says there are three reasons for Tubman's low enrollment.
"One, people don't know that it exists; second thing is the people who know and believe in the school and who put our kids there are told every year that this is a failing school and it's going to close," Pulla said.
"Our scores are linked with Jefferson scores, and because it's a Title I school we get this letter annually –'Does not meet AYP standards.' I am a new parent, and I didn't know that every other high school does not meet AYP standards, but they don't get letters home because they're not Title I schools.
"So what can it do to a parent when you see a letter sent from the district saying 'this school is not meeting AYP standards, transfer your child out'? That's the second thing.
"The third thing is, in the five years of our existence – less than five years – we've been told that we might close, like, three times. Which parent would put their kids in a school with an uncertain future?
"So the ones who are there are leaving because we don't know if it's going to stay; the ones who could come are not coming because they don't know if the school will stay.
"In spite of that, in spite of that, we have 220 kids," Pulla says.
"So I think it's up to the community to step up and take ownership," she said. "If the community really sees the potential and enrolls the girls in the school and increases the numbers, the potential is enormous. I really think it's enormous."