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Its time to implement districts plan

MYVIEW • Portland high school changes are among the many difficult issues facing a beleaguered district
by: L.E. BASKOW, Marshall Campus students say their three autonomous, small schools work by providing the individualized help they need, though the Portland Public Schools administration is proposing to phase out the schools and open a small, districtwide focus option school in their place. Two My View writers have differing views on the merits of the overall high school redesign plan.

For about two years, Portland Public Schools has been working with as much of the Portland community as was willing to tackle several critical challenges facing our high schools:

• Lack of core curriculum and program equity among schools.

• A declining student population.

• And low achievement and graduation rates, which overwhelmingly impact minority students.

Throughout the discussion, parents have urged the district to keep neighborhood/community high schools open, create equity among program offerings while ensuring challenging curriculum for all students, and support and build school diversity where possible. And, we have asked that this all be housed in a plan that is economically sustainable and sufficiently resilient and flexible to accommodate implementation challenges.

The draft plan presented on April 26 (High school shuffle makes critics shout, May 6) and revised on June 2, proposes to close one community high school (Marshall), establishes a guaranteed core curriculum among the remaining eight schools, creates one new focus option school (at Marshall campus - subject to be developed) and significantly changes the way Career Technical Education curriculum is delivered, through a restructuring of the Benson High School program. At this juncture, parents, students, teachers and the community as a whole need to decide whether and to what extent to support this plan.

With two children still to complete high school and one to attend in a year, I support this plan and see it as a big step in the right direction. The plan is responsive to community priorities and concerns. It keeps eight of 10 neighborhood high schools open, and equalizes their student populations in a way that won't result in a loss of classes or programming flexibility.

A new and clear transfer policy, when strictly enforced, will support this.

And when parents pointed out that the originally proposed boundary changes would reduce the economic and cultural diversity within some schools, PPS revised its proposal to remedy this. Further, the community demanded a four-year Career Technical Education program at Benson.

While we can't support one that is so big that it drains neighborhood high schools of the students needed to stay open, the revised plan proposes a four-year Benson program that is sustainable, compatible in size with other high schools and maintains a reasonable amount of CTE offerings throughout the high school network. This is a responsive compromise with noteworthy potential.

The draft plan will create 'academic priority zones' around Portland's most at-risk schools and the district will begin to end the forced placement of teachers within the schools where our children struggle most. Under forced placement, schools don't have a choice over which teachers work in their buildings and, in fact, the teachers don't have a choice either.

Forced placement prevents schools from building strong and lasting teaching teams necessary to address students' needs. And last year, two-thirds of forced placements happened in high school clusters with the lowest graduation rates and the lowest income populations. Enabling struggling schools to hire the staff they need to be most effective will close the achievement gap and raise graduation rates a lot sooner.

The community wants a plan that will be sustainable and closely monitored throughout implementation. The district has responded by forming a 20-member High School Parent Advisory Committee. This group needs to be given the authority to identify what's working, what's not and when and how to make course corrections.Portland parents are effective on-the-ground monitors of daily school operations. Their input should be highly valued.

The hardest part starts now. Last fall, when the Cleveland PTA first began discussing high school redesign, we quickly recognized the significance and magnitude of the problem facing the district. We also determined that as a school that had prospered academically in the past decade, we needed to share some of our resources with the high schools that were struggling.

That now holds true more than ever.

As parents and as a community, we now need to focus on how to best support the schools we seek to improve through the district's current proposal. We need to accept that we are part of a system that can only truly achieve when we all achieve.

Mike Rosen is legislative chairman of the Cleveland High School PTA. He lives in Southeast Portland.