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Helen Silvis of The Skanner
Published: 03 December 2008

Despite positive academic results from many of Portland's small schools, the educational experiments mounted in mostly minority schools remain a hot point for the district's critics. Test scores show that small schools have boosted academic achievement for many students, but those schools offer far fewer class options -- particularly when it comes to college level credit opportunities. At the same time plunging enrollment has led to the closure of at least one school within a school, and threatens the future of others. In 2006, Portland Public Schools received almost $2.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create separate schools within schools, at Marshall, Roosevelt, Madison and Jefferson. That money was in addition to a three-year grant of more than $7.5 million to Portland Schools Foundation for the small schools redesign. Supporters, such as former PPS Superintendent Vicki Phillips, said creating small schools at struggling high school campuses would raise achievement, lower the dropout rate and help close the education achievement gap. But because only poor and minority schools were being changed, opponents were suspicious of the educational experimentation.

Jury's Out on Reform
Two years later, the opinions are still mixed. Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith argues relationships between students and teachers are stronger in the small academies, and as a result, math and reading scores have improved. 
"The small schools have been really strong in producing student growth," Smith said. "They've been effective at reaching kids that have been really struggling."
Preliminary figures measuring reading and math scores at grades 8 and 10 show significant gains for students in many of the small schools.
Take Power Academy, for example, one of the small schools based at Roosevelt High. Between 8th and10th grades, the students' average math score jumped more than 4 points.
Students at most of the small schools showed similar gains in math and even stronger gains in reading – increases far above the improvements seen in other area high schools. Case closed? Hold the celebrations. Students at the small schools enter high school so far behind the average that these gains still are not enough to close the achievement gap. And dropout rates at the small high schools remain high.
Critics say the small schools don't offer a sufficient range of classes.
"Students can't get enough classes to graduate," says Steve Rawley, parent of two elementary school students in the Jefferson High School cluster. "If a student misses too much of a class and gets an incomplete or fails, it becomes really difficult to get enough credits to graduate.
"You shouldn't be able to go into a school and know what kind of a neighborhood it is by the classes offered."

Parent Initiative
A new report on the experience of Portland's African American students in the public school system is set for release before the end of the year. Conducted by ECONorthwest consultants, for the Black Parent Initiative, the report will look at school districts across the Metro region.
BPI's president and CEO, Charles McGee, says the report will offer a new window into what is working well for minority students – and what isn't.
"The data we have will say something different," McGee said. "We're looking at what subject matter Black kids are doing best at, for example. Some of it is stuff we already know, but it will paint a different picture from what we've always thought."
McGee said the nonprofit that works with minority parents to help increase graduation and achievement rates for African American students, has been working hard to develop partnerships with families, churches, business and community groups.
For more information go to www.thebpi.org.

Race and Class
Rawley's Web site ppsequity.org, attracts blog posts from teachers, parents and activists who want PPS to change its policies. Contributor Terry Olson, for example, writes about evidence that current school choice and transfer policies are magnifying the segregation of students by race and class.
"For a public school district to tolerate, and even encourage, policies that create such race and class-based disparities is intolerable," he says.
Another flashpoint for equity activists has been the ban on students taking classes outside their limited small school programs.
"If a student enters academy A but wants to take a German class that's only offered at academy B then it's not allowed, even if that class is just down the hall," Rawley said. "There is nothing wrong with splitting a school up into smaller learning academies. What's wrong is when you use that to take opportunities away from students."
Rawley also argues that when middle class families flee schools in poor neighborhoods, they take funding with them. Those schools end up with higher numbers of poor and high needs students.
That's why he wants to see a comprehensive high school in every neighborhood. Fewer students would transfer out of their neighborhood schools if every school offered the same quality and range of classes.
If Beaverton can do it, he says, surely Portland can too.
"Nobody wants to send their teenagers on public transportation going miles across town to get a decent education," he says. "Most parents want to send their kids to their neighborhood school. There would be no reason to go from Jefferson to Grant if they had the same offerings."

New Superintendent's Effort
Superintendent Carole Smith agrees that equity is her top priority, along with improving achievement and preparing students for college and a career.
"The goal is to create equality in what's on offer at each school so that you are not ever leaving to go away from something." College level courses will be offered at every school by next year, she said.
These goals are on the right track, Rawley said, but progress is too slow. Smith could have changed the rule that stops students from taking classes across programs, or made advanced classes available to all high schoolers this year.
"Her heart's in the right place," he said. Right now she is taking a very tentative approach, he says, partly as a reaction to the last superintendent's slash and burn approach.
"It's extremely frustrating that we are not seeing more action. I think if she had more wind at her back from the school board she'd be moving faster."

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