Portland Public Schools is celebrating a measurable increase in Black student achievement, beginning with a 4% increase in the cohort’s graduation rate over the 2021-22 school year.
According to Dr. Renard Adams, PPS’s chief of research, assessment and accountability, the significant improvement in graduation rate can be traced to the district’s multi-tiered efforts to better serve students of color, including Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s push to disseminate budgetary resources in alignment with a steadfast commitment to racial equity and social justice.
“How and where we allocate funds is as important as the magnitude of the financial outlay itself,” Adams said.
“By investing in our Black students, we’re sending a clear message that we value them, believe in them, and want to do everything possible to give them a bright future. When we know every student by name and need, all things are possible.”
With that in mind, PPS recently partnered with Education Resource Strategies, a Boston-based educational analytics company, to ensure that the district’s goal of better serving students of color through financial expenditure has been bearing actual fruit.
The results of ERS’s work point to a clear pattern. PPS is allocating more resources and staff to higher need schools. When the level of investment in schools serving Black students goes up, there is a corresponding uptick in academic performance.
“On one hand, the numbers speak for themselves,” Adams said. “What the numbers don’t show, though, are the intangibles, the things we can’t necessarily measure but are an incredibly big part of the story as well, like a rise in self-esteem and confidence in our Black students, not to mention countless young people dreaming big dreams and believing in their ability to achieve them.”
Another explanation for the upswing in Black student performance is the district’s proactive and student-centered approach to teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. PPS followed the science to get students safely back into the classroom, where, thanks to a standardized instructional framework introduced by Dr. Cheryl Proctor and Dr. Kimberlee Armstrong, they were given a solid foundation of core knowledge and analytical skills.
Armstrong, PPS’s chief academic officer, points to the district’s relatively stable Oregon Statewide Assessment System scores as proof that the new framework is resulting in real-world progress.
“Prior to the framework’s adoption, there was very little consistency across the district in terms of curriculum and pedagogy,” said Armstrong.
“Now, every student in PPS is guaranteed equal access to the cohesive instruction they deserve.”
When it comes to narrowing the achievement gap between white and Black students, PPS is not resting on its laurels. District leadership is looking toward – and planning for – the future by joining leaders in the African-American community to spearhead the creation of the Center for Black Student Excellence.
The CBSE, currently in the vision stage, is an intersectional and aspirational effort to both acknowledge and address decades of under-investment that have impacted Black students and families across Portland.
Such disparities came under close scrutiny during the racial justice protests of 2020. That year, Portland voters approved the creation of the CBSE as part of a bond measure that would also support the construction of a modernized Jefferson High School.
Proctor, PPS’s deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities, said the district has made a concerted effort to hire more Black leaders so that Black students can mirror the excellence they aspire to be. Proctor also hopes that the goals of the CBSE, when paired with the concrete gains made by Black students, can serve as a model for other urban school districts hoping to address and even reverse historic inequities in K-12 education.
“It’s our goal to be leaders in this work and share what we’ve learned with other educators and districts around the country,” said Proctor. “That way, young people of color everywhere benefit and we lift each other up, one step, one student, at a time.”