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Benson goes to bat

School ditches entry standards but not its mission
by: JIM CLARK, Junior Zulema Lescas works with classmate Alex Dougherty to measure the cylinders of an engine in auto shop. As the only vocational and technical high school of its kind in the state, Benson long has attracted students serious about math and science, but now it is struggling with an influx of students not ready for its rigorous programs.

Sixteen-year-old Zulema Lescas might be the only girl in Brett Anderson's fifth- and sixth-period auto shop class, but she doesn't care. 'I get tired of hearing people say girls don't know about cars,' she says.

Lescas, a junior automotive major at Northeast Portland's Benson Polytechnic High School, spends most of her day learning how to identify engine parts and other basic mechanical skills - valuable training that may help her become a doctor someday, she says, or anything else she wants to pursue when she graduates.

'I always heard about the opportunities here,' she said, having transferred from outer Northeast Portland's Madison High School last year.

Lescas is the kind of student that has been the bread and butter of Benson for decades. Principal Christie Plinski wants to keep attracting those interested, motivated students to the school based on its program offerings and strong reputation, but it's become increasingly difficult in today's world of student transfer policies and federal sanctions.

Like other Portland high schools, Benson in recent years has been hit with the double whammy of the federal No Child Left Behind Law and the Portland Public Schools transfer policy, which forced such 'focus option' schools to ditch their special admissions requirements and accept any student who agrees to attend a mandatory meeting and sign a statement of understanding.

Students who want to transfer in from the so-called 'failing' schools - Jefferson, Marshall, Madison and Roosevelt - get priority over students from other schools.

Since Benson is a districtwide focus option program and doesn't have geographical boundaries of its own, 84 percent of its population is comprised of students from those schools.

Teachers now are seeing the effects of that trend: Many of the students who come to Benson aren't ready - academically or mentally - for the school's unique technical and vocational programs.

'We now have kids who come here and say, 'I didn't even know you had a tech program,' ' said Mike Kelly, a communications teacher in his 20th year at Benson. '(They say), 'I just came here because I didn't want to go to another school.' '

Even Plinski admitted there is a marked difference in skill level since the school had to drop its entrance requirements, which included a student essay and recommendations from middle-school teachers and counselors.

'We had historically gotten kids that were the best in math and science' she said. Now, 'when you've got kids in engineering who need to know high-level math and they can't even pass algebra, they've got to go back. It really slows down progress for kids,' she said.

Teachers worry that with so much ground to make up with these students, Benson's performance, reputation and mission might suffer.

'I really think the district and the citizens of Portland are kind of at a tipping point,' said Jeff Pittman, who's taught health occupations at Benson for 26 years. 'What will the mission of Benson High School be? Is it going to be as it's printed, or will it be an alternative for low-level performing students, and will that mean we'll abandon the high-level professional and technical programs?'

For the first time this year, Benson landed on the list of 'failing' schools - not for academic reasons but because it's had more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch for two years in a row. That's the federal cutoff for the designation. Southeast Portland's Franklin High School is likely to land on the list next year.

'When you're listed as a failing school and you're serving kids that have low skills to begin with, it's almost a given that you're going to continue on a downward spiral,' Kelly said. 'We're being set up for failure.'

'We have an opportunity'

Rob Herder, the head baseball coach at Benson for the past five years, has seen the fallout from the transfer policy firsthand.

A few years ago, he had a class of 20 freshmen come out for baseball, and ended the season with 16 of them. A year later, he started the season with 12 and ended with 10, but nine of them were on academic probation for failing to meet a 2.0 grade-point average or pass five classes.

'The attendance and behavior issues don't go away when they come to Benson,' said Herder, who left this season to possibly coach at Wilson, where his son just started school.

A graduate of Benson himself, Herder said it's been tough to watch the school change so drastically. His son, he said, will be the first in his family in the last 50 years who hasn't gone to Benson. He has an 11-year-old, too.

'I think his track will be Wilson as well,' he said, 'certainly if things don't change at Benson.'

Plinski, in her fifth year at Benson, won't accept any negativity from students or teachers. She's an optimist, looking only at how her staff can work to improve student learning by working extra-hard and simply being creative.

'One teacher said, 'We used to get quality kids here,' ' Plinski said. 'That irked me. These are children. They're not test scores. They're bodies and brains, and we have an opportunity.'

Since starting to see test scores drop after the lottery was implemented, Plinski started to implement a host of new strategies to lift up the school. She's tried to help teachers better understand children who come from poverty and introduced new curricula to boost reading and math skills.

Plinski likes to point out the fact that the school is one of the most diverse in the district, with nearly an even mix of whites, blacks and Asians, and a smaller number of Hispanics.

Just over half of the student body are boys. Despite the fact that Lescas is the only girl in her shop class, a quarter of the automotive majors are girls, the shop teacher is proud to note.

There's also a wide range of aptitude. While many Benson students thrive in the college-level courses, 29 percent of the school's entering freshmen were reading at or below fifth-grade level last year, and another 19 percent were reading at middle-school level.

'A third are real talented, a third are getting by and a third are doing nothing,' said Deanne Larsell, a health and physical-education teacher at Benson. 'Some go back to their home schools, mad at us because we push them so hard. But this is the future. We want an educated work force.'

Newbies get some extra help

Plinski's staff has created a student planner to help kids organize their time.

Veteran journalism teacher Rob Melton, who designed it, said it made a marked difference in last year's trial run among freshmen. 'For freshmen, we found 60 percent who used it got As and Bs,' he said. 'Sixty percent who didn't use it got Ds and Fs. We decided to go buildingwide.'

The idea arose after teachers said that the biggest roadblock to student learning was the students' lack of organizational and planning skills when they entered high school.

'We're not just teachers of content, we're teachers of the world,' Plinski said. In that vein, she's having her teaching staff read various publications such as Ruby K. Payne's 'A Framework for Understanding Poverty,' which is based on the theory that there are inherent differences in the way kids enter school, depending on whether they come from low-income or middle-class backgrounds.

Next, the school developed its new Freshman Academy, a special small-group approach to make sure the freshmen don't fall through the cracks. Led by veteran teachers Katie Meyer and Linda McClellan, teachers track each student's progress and take steps if they're not meeting the mark.

Meyer and McClellan also took a cue from the students, who revealed in a survey last year that the top reason they were failing class was that they didn't have good homework habits. Many were overwhelmed from too much homework at once in six different subjects, a big leap from middle school.

So the teachers decided schoolwide to institute a two-hour limit on homework for all subjects, at least to start off the year. Students are encouraged to begin homework in class, so they can get help if they need it. If they don't turn in their homework, they're handed a slip and told to finish it in a special Homework Room after school.

Vocational training's a draw

The school is the only vocational and technical high school of its kind in Oregon, offering a range of majors that students choose at the end of their sophomore year.

The majors include building construction, communication, drafting architecture, engineering, electronics, health occupations, manufacturing and transportation.

Longtime teachers look back on the school's rich history and uniqueness and lament the changes that are happening today.

Veteran teacher Kevin Flink, among others, thinks the school should be able to admit more students from the more affluent schools in town to balance the population.

'If Benson is going to be a districtwide magnet school, it should be open equally to everybody in the school district, which it traditionally has been,' he said.

Because students from 'failing' schools get priority in the transfer process, he worries that students from Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin aren't fairly represented.

Flink, who's taught radio broadcasting at the campus radio station, KBPS AM, for the past 32 years, also has a daughter who is a senior at Benson, having transferred from the Wilson district for the communications program three years ago.

'I don't know if she'd be able to get in under the current transfer policy,' he said.

Larsell, the health and PE teacher, said that's a major issue of inequity. 'If you're a good kid at Lincoln, a kid with lower test scores gets priority over you,' she said. 'I would get very angry if I were a Lincoln or Franklin parent. It's like reverse discrimination.'

But according to the district's enrollment and transfer center, those students are indeed represented at Benson.

This year, all ninth-graders who applied to Benson through the lottery got in except for the 22 who were wait-listed for the health occupations program. Among those accepted were 16 students from Cleveland, 15 from Franklin, 22 from Grant, six from Lincoln and four from Wilson.

A total of nine students from Franklin, Grant and Cleveland were put on the wait list, but 12 students from those schools were accepted. At the same time, Benson accepted 90 students from Jefferson, 58 from Madison, 40 from Marshall and 61 from Roosevelt.

Next year, Benson ironically will be able to admit students districtwide on an equal basis because of its own 'failing' status.

The chaos is under control

School district officials are waiting to see how the struggling high schools perform over the next two or three years. In the meantime, the district is introducing higher standards such as the new college preparatory math curriculum in schools for the first time this year.

The new style is immediately visible in Amy Morrell's Algebra I class. On a recent afternoon, Morrell's classroom is controlled chaos as students work with their desks clustered together to solve a problem out of their textbook. They each have a role: facilitator, recorder, resource manager and task manager.

Students jump up to take measurements against markings on the door frame, then hop back to their desk to do the calculations. The idea behind the inquiry method is that students learn better when discovering solutions for themselves, rather than sitting through a lecture.

'The old math class of silence is history,' said Morrell, who likes the approach. Time will tell if it works. Last year, Benson missed its federal Average Yearly Progress standards in math achievement among two groups: blacks and those with limited English skills.

The school missed other standards as well. Now that Benson receives federal funding for its share of Title 1 students and has not met standards two years in a row, the school is in 'School Improvement Status' and faces sanctions for the first time.

That means the school must work on a 'Continuous Improvement Plan' and offer students the chance to transfer to another school. If the school does not meet the increasing standards for two more years in a row, the school could be closed or restructured.

'We're not at all surprised we ended up on the list this year,' Plinski said. 'We'd been working on some things over the last three years and knew the fruits of our labor wouldn't be evident this year. But we're on the right path. You have to get some momentum going.'

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