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School board weighs cost versus size

Small schools are the district's 'jewels,' but are they worth keeping?

Eighty-nine years old, with shiny wood floors and a jungle mural on a hallway wall, Kenton Elementary School sits in the middle of North Portland. And sits, seemingly, at the center of a bull's-eye.

Kenton Elementary recently made a top 10 list Ñ of the smallest elementary schools in the Portland Public Schools system. And in this case, for Kenton, small might not be so good.

Portland Public Schools leaders' focus is beginning to turn to schools such as Kenton as they consider what to do with more and more school space in a district with declining enrollment.

With 233 students last fall, Kenton is among the largest of the 10 small schools. The smallest has 177 students. Still, Kenton's enrollment is projected to decline to 168 in eight years. And the question that school district leaders are increasingly asking is this: Are the advantages of such small schools worth the premium they cost to operate?

A school district that had 80,000 students 25 years ago now houses 54,000 in about the same number of school buildings. And as building space increases in pockets across the district, pressure builds to merge elementary school programs, reconfigure school boundaries and close a few or more of the buildings. Running Kenton costs about $683 per student in operations costs, according to a study of district facilities released last week Ñ more than 50 percent higher than the district average.

'I think one of the big questions floating out there É is the issue of the 10 smallest schools,' says school board member Marc Abrams, who thinks some elementary-school programs need to be merged.

But focusing on the 10 small schools leads inevitably to focusing on their quality and to questions of quality over efficiency.

Kenton's smallness allows its teachers and staff to connect with students better, says Kenton Elementary Principal Deanne Froehlich. It allows them to make a stronger connection with parents and the community, and to teach children more effectively.

'Small schools have a different feel,' says Froehlich, who came to Kenton this year after being vice principal at the much larger Mount Tabor Middle School. 'It has a personal feel to it. You can see that when you walk into the classroom.'

Often, one can see it in test scores as well. Students at most of the 10 smallest schools have unusually high test scores, and the schools have unusually good reputations.

'If you go to any of those very small schools É people will describe them as the jewels of the district,' says school board Chairwoman Debbie Menashe. The question the district needs to answer, Menashe says, is whether that quality is due entirely to the small enrollments or might be due to other factors that can be replicated at larger schools.

How much efficiency can a district sacrifice for quality? What should be the optimum size Ñ or the minimum size Ñ for a school?

Past facilities studies, like the one released last week, have suggested that district educational leaders must answer those questions. They have yet to do that. But they will need to now, Menashe and other board members say.

'The board can't duck the issue anymore of deciding whether we want to support small schools or not,' says board member Sue Hagmeier.

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .