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By Nancy Mccarthy of The Skanner
Published: 25 January 2006

Students in the Jefferson High School cluster may not recognize some of the schools they attend next fall as the Portland School District embarks on a massive three-year plan to revamp the cluster's nine schools.

In a meeting punctuated by shouting and earnest testimony, the Portland School Board on Monday decided to create four academies in the cluster — including two single-sex academies — to eventually eliminate Harriet Tubman as a middle school and to redesign seven elementary schools as pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The changes — which also will include a curriculum redesign, more classroom time, strengthened ties with local colleges and community businesses and a focus on higher academic expectations — are meant to improve the cluster's academic scores and to attract more students to the schools. Only 655 students attend Jefferson from a potential student population of 1,950; the rest attend high schools elsewhere in the district.

At the suggestion of Superintendent Vicki Phillips, the board also agreed to forego a proposal — for now — that uniforms be required at Jefferson and Tubman. Instead, a strict dress code will be enforced in the Jefferson cluster and throughout the district. Students and some parents had opposed the dress code, saying that it unfairly targeted students in one specific cluster in the district and had racist overtones.

Due to changes in the curriculum at several schools, the board also decided to extend the deadline to apply for school transfers to March 3.

Critics of the plan have used the words "racism" and "segregation," noted board President David Wynde. He denied any racist intent.

"Those are real loaded words," Wynde said. "But people have failed the kids who live in the Jefferson cluster. Finally it's time for adults to step forward and say, 'no more … .' The racist thing to do here would be to ignore it. I'm sorry, I cannot accept that."

Beginningin September, King and Vernonelementary schools will add a seventh grade and Boise-Eliot will add a sixth grade. Tubman will continue to be a co-ed middle school, but a Young Women'sLeadership Academy also will begin with seventh and eighthgradesin September. In the next three years the middle school will phase out, and the academy will expand to grades seven through 12. The academy will focus on science and technology.

Jefferson High will begin to convert into three small schools: a co-ed Arts and Technology Academy and a co-ed Sciences and Technology academy, both serving grades nine through 12; and a Young Men's Leadership Academy for grades seven through 12. The leadership academy will open with a ninth-grade program next September.

Besides King and Vernon, the other elementary schools affectedareBeach, Humboldt, Woodlawn and Faubian. Boise-Eliot also will become a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, but students will attend Grant High School. Chief Joseph Elementary will remain as it is, but seventh- and eighth-graders might attend Ockley Green School's magnet program for arts, science and technology.

Before they decidedto launchthe redesign, school board members heard often emotionaltestimony from students andparents; members of the designteam that developed the plan; and members of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance,a group of parents, teachers and community members representingall areasof Portland.

Jefferson studentbody President Shereen Sherman reminded the board that Jefferson, which was converted into two schools nearly two years ago, has already been through several changes, which have affected the students emotionally.

"In the past four years, Jefferson has been hit with a lot of changes that people said would resolve some of the problems," Sherman said. "But in the hallways I'm surrounded by students asking why should next year be any different. They ask, 'Why should I care?' "

The problems students deal with aren't necessarily school-related,Sherman said.

"They go past the classrooms and the school entrances and enter their hearts," she said. "Students worry about 'Do I have a home?' or 'Did my sister go to school today?' or 'Did my mother come home last night?'

"It's the underlying issues that we're not touching," she added.

Other speakers urged the board to give up the practice of allowing students to transfer out of their neighborhood schools to schools that are academically more successful. The practice, they said, results in student bodies that are sorted according to race and socio-economic class.

Some testifying said they hoped the district, which is facing a loss of $57 million in taxes next year, wouldn't shelve the plan due to lack of money. Phillips said much of the curriculum changes, professional development and structural remodeling have already been incorporated into the budget, and a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will pay for some needs. However, more funds may be needed, she said.

Although the district design team submitted numerous recommendations in the areas of leadership, curriculum, instruction, student support and enrollment, some team members who testified remained critical of the proposal. Shouting broke out between members of the audience and those testifying, until Wynde finally had to order silence.
Lolenzo Poe, a former school board member who worked on the design team told the board, "We have submitted our best work. I would like to tell you the recommendations were unanimous, but you are not going to get it. There has never been an overwhelming consensus, and you are not going to get it now. We have to do what's right for the children of the district.

"Let's not deny the people in the Jefferson cluster the opportunity to use their creativity," Poe added. "If we don't act now, we have helped a self-fulfilling prophecy come true — we have helped Jefferson to close."

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