When Portland Public Schools board gave the thumbs up to an ambitious high school redesign on March 9 – two board members opposed the plan -- former Latino Network President, Martin Gonzalez, and Portland State University Professor Dilafruz Williams. Williams also opposed the creation of K-8 schools under the previous Superintendent, a major system reform that critics say offers little benefit, but gives some students fewer choices of electives than others.
Gonzalez told The Skanner that while he agrees that Portland's high schools are segregated and vastly unequal, he disagrees with the idea that students of color will be better off in large comprehensives.
"The outcomes are not there," Gonzalez said. "Grant High School is a large comprehensive with all the characteristics they say every school should have. And 95 percent of White students are meeting or exceeding the academic benchmarks in reading but only 45 percent of African American students are meeting or achieving the benchmark. You see that gap there whether it's in math, writing or science – in fact in science it's even greater. Only 25 percent of African American students are meeting the benchmark."
Grant High is making efforts to reduce the gap. This year the timetable includes double blocks of core subjects. Teachers think this will help struggling students catch up.
During 8th grade the district identifies the students most at risk of falling behind in high school, yet only 51 percent of these "academic priority" students are achieving a C grade or above, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez believes the district needs to identify the teachers, principals and teaching methods that are working well to reduce the gap in classrooms. That's in addition to tackling the gap earlier so that students leave elementary and middle schools in better shape for high school.
Are Small Schools Succeeding?
Last time a Portland Public Schools superintendent took on the achievement gap in Portland's high schools, it was to break up large comprehensive schools into smaller schools. Using $15 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $13 million from the Meyer Memorial Trust, just six years ago, the school district turned four large comprehensives into 12 smaller high schools at the same sites. Superintendent Vicki Phillips, who spearheaded that redesign, later went to work for the Gates Foundation. The idea was that relationships between teachers and students and between schools and families could be stronger and more personal. Students of color would be less likely to fall behind and drop out.
At Roosevelt, the number of students meeting state benchmarks in math is four times higher than it was five years ago. In reading, for example, the percentage of students meeting the state benchmarks has jumped from 20 percent to 45 percent. Pauling Academy, a small school on the Marshall campus made "US News and World Report's Best Schools 2009" list, because of improved student test scores.
Doug Stamm, CEO of the Meyer Memorial Trust, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that even though the achievement gap persists, small schools are making significant gains. "Based on the data, it supports the continuation of Roosevelt, Marshall, and frankly the expansion of small learning environments at the high school level – as opposed to large, comprehensive high schools, he said.
Martin Gonzalez says PPS needs to recognize and support good teachers and classroom practices.
"There are some teachers across the district who have made a decision to work with the most challenging students across the district," he said, "and they are committed to providing the best education to those students."
Teachers at Roosevelt's Spanish English International school have raised the bar, he said. "More Latino students are going through AP (advanced college –level) courses at SEIS than across the entire district." By contrast, he said, "Lincoln High School has a prestigious International Baccalaureate program, but up to a year ago – and I think I am correct here – they had not graduated one black student from that program."
Yet the district already has signaled its willingness to dismantle Roosevelt's small schools in order to be eligible for up to $6 million in federal restructuring funds. Critics say students are poorly served by constant changes in principals and school structures.
"The only experiments that are happening are with low-income students and students of color," says Gonzalez.
Stamm, Gonzalez and some other education leaders say the answer to the achievement gap is not to create more structural change – because no evidence exists showing that large comprehensives will do better.
"Bottom line is we'd like to see the small schools – and we think the data justifies it – expanded, Stamm said. "Certainly kept intact, and potentially expanded, but the political reality is that that will be very challenging."
Money, Money, Money.
For the school district, the problem is financial as well as educational. Opportunities – to take electives and higher level classes – cost money. So does educational support – needed by many students to bring up achievement. Portland Public schools administrators say the high school redesign plan would help the school district offer more of both types of classes to more students.
Currently, schools have unequal resources – largely because bigger schools can provide more choices, but also because the small schools serve less wealthy families. Parents at Lincoln High school, for example, last year funded five additional teachers equal to 25 classes every day. Although one-third of all funds raised go to the Portland Public Schools Foundation and are shared with other less wealthy schools, none of these funds pay for extra teachers or classes in other schools.
Small is Not Enough.
As the associate director of The National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Columbia University, Dr. Jacqueline Ancess champions small schools. Yet size alone is less important than the teaching, she writes in the journal Educational Leadership, "Perhaps we need to move the conversation from size to substance — to look at how schools use their small size to reach kids and get them to use their minds well," she said. "As our metric, we need to use not test scores, but college-going rates, college-completion rates, graduates' evaluations of how well their high school prepared them for college and work, and measures of how well graduates analyze, problem solve, collaborate, reason, evaluate evidence, and defend their points of view. Perhaps we need to stop talking about whether school size makes a difference and start focusing on what happens in small schools that does make a difference."
Students of Color face Harsher Sanctions
African American boys and girls tend to receive harsher discipline in school. That's a longstanding problem across the country as well as in Portland.
According to Gonzalez, at Grant High School, for example, black students are eight times more likely than white students to be expelled or suspended.
Gonzalez said one factor is that all teachers do not work equally well with African American students. This could be because some teachers struggle to gain the students' trust and respect, because their expectations are too low, or because teachers view Black students differently based on unconscious biases. Other factors may be that some students lack discipline at home and do not expect to succeed in school.
"Part of the challenge is that there is not real analysis," Gonzalez said. "There is a hesitation to actually go deeper into looking at the role race plays … and how competent we are as teachers and administrators to deal with different populations."
Nationally the federal education department's office of civil rights is looking closely at issues of discipline and access to courses – both problems in Portland.
In Portland and Seattle, teachers are using a book called "Courageous conversations" by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton to examine how they can better work with students of color.
Changes Ahead for Portland's High Schools
Part Two: A civil rights violation
Part Three: Are small schools succeeding?