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Portland superintendent vows to increase academic standards

Vicki Phillips says the district needs to address school choice
by: JIM CLARK, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips

Delivering her first annual State of the Schools address to a packed house Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent Vicki Phillips vowed to increase academic standards districtwide, chip away at the achievement gap and continue the progress made in the past couple of years.

'We need to implement what we already know works - based on our experiences here and elsewhere,' she told the crowd of about 900, who gathered at the Oregon Convention Center. 'But we - by that I mean all of us in the room -- also need to challenge ourselves to think beyond known practice, to explore the cutting edge and to imagine a school system that leads the nation in innovation and results.'

Invited guests included local politicians, business people, teachers, parents, principals and school support staff. The lunch event was funded by dozens of local business, government and nonprofit sponsors.

Phillips' 35-minute speech was well-received, receiving a standing ovation and leaving the crowd with an overall feeling of inspiration, according to one parent who closely watches school issues.

'It was terrific inspiration,' said Betsy Richter, who has two children at Buckman Elementary and Fernwood Middle School. 'I applaud her for her lofty goals and ambitions. It's amazing to see how far she's come with what she's been given.'

Phillips, who was hired in August 2004, has faced some criticism during her tenure over her school reconfiguration efforts and other initiatives some in the community didn't agree with.

But since this spring, criticism has generally subsided, and parents and teachers are largely pleased with the progress in the schools.

Phillips highlighted the district's success: almost 70 percent of the Portland public schools are rated 'exceptional' or 'strong' by the state, higher than the Oregon average.

The district has cut its dropout rate by 45 percent since its peak in 1999. Half of the district's graduating students take the SAT, and this year the scores jumped by a dozen points when national scores are stagnant or dropping.

But Phillips cited a few issues that are still unresolved, among them the district's transfer policy and the issue of choice. 'What will it take to offer both a high quality school for every neighborhood, and a portfolio of options driven by the interests of our customers - families and students?' she asked.

She said work is underway to develop a core curriculum in math, literacy, social studies and science, to ensure that students are learning the same thing and that teachers are measuring the same outcomes across the district. The district is also asking all seventh graders to develop an individual graduation plan, which meets the district's graduation requirements.

In the long-term, Phillips promised to offer full-day kindergarten to all students by 2010 (three-quarters of students are now served). She said she wants to lower class students in kindergarten through third grade to a maximum of 20 students.

And she received a thunderous applause when she vowed to restore the full array of curriculum offerings - literacy, math, science, social studies, art, music and wellness - to all students.

Teri Geist, principal at Alameda Elementary in Northeast, said she was excited by hearing Phillips push the district to do better.

Even at Alameda, one of the city's wealthiest schools, Geist said she has funding needs: Mostly, she'd like to have more time available for teachers to work together in professional development training during the school day.

Maria Forbes, parent of a fifth-grader at Marysville Elementary in Southeast Portland, also enjoyed the update and is largely pleased with her son's school experience, after moving into the district this year from Sweet Home, Ore.

'A school can make or break a child, emotionally,' she said. 'They spend so much time there.'

She said her school could always use more computers and funding for the talented and gifted program, which her son is in. But mostly Forbes is glad that her son has found such welcoming teachers, after she's moved him from district to district over the past several years looking for the right fit. 'I'm just so happy with the way it is,' she said.

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