MYVIEW • Portland high school changes are among the difficult issues facing a beleaguered district
Portland Public School's high school redesign process is foundering. Its aim was to bring equity to Portland's schools. Where it stands right now is that PPS will likely close Marshall High School, located in maybe the city's poorest neighborhood. And changed for the worse will be Benson Polytechnic High School, the school that has historically been the best source of a good education for Portland's less affluent kids.
For years, PPS's administration and school board were pawns of Portland's middle- and upper-middle class school activists. The activists' schools - Lincoln, Wilson, Grant, and Cleveland - fared better than other schools by having more resources, class options and opportunities for advanced classes.The redesign is supposed to address these inequities. To a degree it does. The school board and administration should be applauded for what they have done, but there are way too many questions still unanswered. And there are no clear overall goals, thus no guarantee that the result will be educational equity throughout the city.
For instance, the worst education in the school district has always been in the middle grades in lower-economic neighborhoods. When the district changed to K-8 schools, it made things worse yet. The dropout problem is built on what happens in these grades. This is when kids become disengaged from school and fail to correct their lagging reading skills. PPS's lack of attention to a sensible approach to creating orderly classrooms and orderly schools means the kids on the edge are pushed over that edge since disruptions abound in so many classrooms.
Adding to the dropout problem is the lack of athletics and hands-on electives (art, shop, music, etc.) in the middle grades. These are the parts of the school that create the interests which often carry kids throughout their high school years.
How did we get the idea that we could address the high school inequities, but it wasn't necessary to address the more severe inequities and struggling programs in the middle grades? And why do parents and community members often come away from the meetings frustrated?
If you listen to the school board and administration discussions, one thing comes through loud and clear: There is no underlying philosophy that is the basis for their decision making. The school district is without a definition of what constitutes a good education. The national reform movement, which the leaders at PPS have bought into, is based on the importance of a vacuous and narrow testing agenda, along with reforms that improve test scores, but not education in general.The PPS administration doesn't work at improving individual schools as much as pander to national trends. The result is schools that struggle, but leaders who 'look like' they are doing something.
Without well thought out and clearly defined goals for the redesign process, every discussion meanders through a minefield of ideas, where the participants throw out one idea after another, based only on each individual's judgment of what might be workable and what might be politically acceptable.
So thousands of people participate in a process that is critical to the health of the city, the school district, and every neighborhood, but which has no real direction and very little chance of genuine success. Furthermore, this discussion is based on community involvement that is more charade than genuine involvement.
Lots of people giving opinions is not true involvement. Neither are discussions held by the administration and school board amongst themselves. True involvement, which often creates the best solutions, includes give-and-take, questions and responses that can be challenged or supported. Where are the members of the community in these types of discussions? The answer is - there are none.
The school board has never clarified exactly what it is trying to accomplish.This might be a good time to do it, so the remaining discussions are driven by clear objectives rather than by district politics. Because if politics underlie the final decisions, history has shown that poor kids in Portland don't have a chance.
Steve Buel is retiring this month after 43 years of teaching. He taught 10 years in Portland and has been a school activist in Portland since 1975. He was a member of Portland's School Board from 1979-83 and has run three times since, including in the most recent election.