Dont place emphasis on focus high schools

MY VIEW • Portland district should give priority to community high schools
by: L.E. BASKOW, Senior Amanda Axtell (center) adjusts the wheel alignment on her car during an automotive class at the Sabin-Schellenberg Professional Technical Center in Milwaukie. Portland school leaders are considering creating more career-exploration options as part of the district’s high school redesign, though some critics believe experimenting with focus schools only will exacerbate Portland’s school inequities.

I am deeply concerned that the Portland Public Schools administration is pushing for focus schools at the expense of the community schools.

If the PPS administration wants to reduce the inequities in the current system and serve all students, then I believe its first priority should be to make the community high schools as strong and as accessible as possible.

The Portland Tribune article 'Sharpening the focus' (Jan. 28) says that 88 percent of Beaverton's students go to one of the district's regular high schools. In its proposed high school system, PPS staff suggests that only 65 to 70 percent of the high school student population will go to community schools, a significantly smaller percentage. Furthermore, the percentage of Portland high school students who go to community schools is 73 percent. So PPS staff actually expects the percentage who attend community schools to decrease. That projection leads me to believe that the redesign team doesn't have its priorities straight.

As the Tribune article states, some people believe that focus schools tend to attract already strong students from higher-income families. I am one of those people. PPS has already stated that they want a formal application process to be part of focus school enrollment. Whatever that implies - a required essay, a nominal application fee or even a multi-page application form - the application process itself would be geared toward attracting already-promising students.

Secondly, families of students who attend focus schools need to have the motivation and the additional resources, both in time and money, for the student to attend a school that could potentially be several miles away from home. That factor would also lend itself to well-positioned students.

PPS Board member David Wynde, in one of the redesign working sessions, said that a focus school shouldn't be initiated because it has a unique theme or some neat ideas, but that it needs a compelling reason to exist. I couldn't agree more.

According to the Tribune article, Beaverton's magnet schools have science laboratories and health care related facilities, while North Clackamas has cosmetology and electronics labs. These are specialty fields that require expensive equipment and staff training. In contrast, I do not find the new ideas for Portland focus schools to be compelling. Math and reading should be strong in all community schools while an environmental focus could easily be implemented as a pathway in any school.

And although an all-women's academy may be beneficial for some, PPS should not overly encourage schools whose basis for existence is about separation. That is not what equity is about.

I appreciate the PPS redesign team's interest in focus schools, but let's not close established, well-performing high schools in order to experiment with focus schools. That will only exacerbate Portland's school inequities. And as both David Wynde and Board member Ruth Adkins have rightly pointed out, it's a lot easier to open and close focus schools than community schools where school boundaries are involved. The redesign team should take a less-ambitious approach, opening one or two focus schools in a vacant facility, such as one of the schools that was closed under the K-8 redesign. If they work, then the district could decide to open more.

Rob Boime, a data security analyst, lives in Southeast Portland and is the father of two school-age children.