Ten years after Portland's Jefferson High School staff was fired and forced to reapply for their jobs; 25 years after the groundbreaking "Nation at Risk" report described the public school system as completely inadequate – paving the way for the radical No Child Left Behind Act — our students are still getting shortchanged. We know what they need, yet our schools often fail at offering even the basics – even as they reap multi-million-dollar grants from private foundations to teach biotechnology and computer science.
At Jefferson High School in Portland, the Academy of Arts and Technology and Academy of Science and Technology, created under the rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law to draw in more of the 1,200 local kids who choose to transfer elsewhere, hasn't worked.
In fact, by most accounts the school's atmosphere has worsened. Many school employees would speak to The Skanner only on condition of anonymity, expressing a fear of retribution from the district or administration if they were to be quoted in the paper. While we completed our reporting, students broke into the school and trashed the library's computer bank, closing the facility for the rest of the year and leaving students unable to complete end-of-year assignments.
In Seattle, Rainier High School was faced with the same chronic problems as Jefferson: under-enrollment, truancy, deteriorating conditions, lack of electives, a history of community distrust of the administration and more.
Yet the schools couldn't be more different.
Rainier Beach Principal Robert Gary Jr. and his staff deserve our undivided attention. Rather than install a high-tech "magnet" academy at Rainier Beach, the school opted for one additional academic period stressing the basics in math and language arts.
Now, three years later, Rainier Beach scores have climbed so high, the school is one of only three high schools in Seattle NOT to land on the "needs improvement' list – the fast-track to reconstitution and reorganization under No Child laws.
We commend Gary Jr., his staff, his students and their families, for a job well done.
Experts contacted by The Skanner, however, point to one more factor that heavily impacts urban schools – and for now appears to be completely overlooked by educators and policy-makers: gentrification.
The single biggest factor determining whether an inner-city school will be closed for poor performance, says Washington D.C. activist Zein El-Amine, is the rate at which families of color are displaced from the surrounding neighborhood – not test scores. Washington State NAACP Education Chair Phyllis Beaumonte, a retired Rainier Beach Language Arts teacher, says history shows that improvements made to urban schools ultimately benefit not the kids who need them the most, but rather the children of the affluent who are moving in to take their place.
Beaumonte predicted that Jefferson will someday be closed, refitted, and then reopened, after the families who've lived here for generations are displaced to the suburbs.
We don't want to see that happen – although we've noted that an expansive, brand-new housing development has just opened up right next to the Jefferson campus, displacing most of the families who used to live there.
The Skanner urges Portland Public Schools, and the leadership at Jefferson High School, to stop following the hipster, New Age path of vague "academies," and get back to the basics of math, reading, writing, simple classroom discipline, and mind-stimulating extra-curricular activities.
We also recommend that parents and family make sure their teens are at school desks and ready to learn.
And we sincerely hope that the policymakers at City Hall start thinking about the ways their urban renewal policies bleed at-risk urban schools by uprooting communities of color and scattering them to the winds.
Read the two stories referred to above by clicking on http://www.theskanner.com/index.php?action=artd&artid=6642
and on http://www.theskanner.com/index.php?action=artd&artid=6684