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Parents critical of K-8 change

Many complain that combined schools not receiving key resources
by: , ADKINS

At a time of declining enrollment in many parts of Portland Public Schools, Nicole Leggett is the type of parent North Portland's Peninsula School wants and desperately needs.

She's actively involved in her first-grader's education and wants to see his school be as successful as others in the district. She also has two little boys, ages 4 and 2, who'll enter kindergarten in upcoming years.

But Leggett is among a growing chorus of parents who remain skeptical of the district's kindergarten through eighth-grade reconfiguration effort over the past three years, which affects 28 schools that have combined the elementary and middle-school grades.

In particular, critics say the district rushed into the move - under former Superintendent Vicki Phillips - and now is picking up the pieces, such as how to patch together ways to meet the unique staffing needs of K-8 schools.

'They're not doing any direct funding for this K-8 thing,' said Leggett, 29, who lives six blocks from Peninsula and works as a server at a video lottery outlet.

'On the one hand, they're doing all this planning, but on the other hand, they're not giving the funding for it,' she said. 'If they don't do it now, in the budget, how are they going to do it later and how are they going to be accountable?'

Peninsula, 8125 N. Emerald Ave., was an elementary school until it added sixth and seventh grades over the past two years, growing to 316 students this year. Next year it will add an eighth-grade class of 30 or so students.

Since a school's staffing is tied to its enrollment, Peninsula isn't facing cuts, like many others are. Its influx of eighth-graders will actually bring an additional 1.27 full-time equivalent positions next year under the district's complex staffing formula.

That means the school will be able to hire a part-time library assistant and a half-time music teacher and half-time Spanish language teacher to replace the current piecemeal arts offerings, said Principal Alan Barker, who will retire this summer after 10 years at the school.

That's a lot more than other schools are getting in the district's proposed $427 million general fund budget, which is currently being hashed out and due to be adopted in June.

Jefferson High School, which is merging two of its academies next year, is losing five full-time equilvalents, or FTE; Madison High School is losing two FTE, even with the addition of 115 eighth-graders who came from overcrowded K-8 schools nearby; and Ockley Green School, a K-8, is losing nine FTE, among others.

The explanation? 'We've been overstaffed,' said Cathy Mincberg, the district's chief operating officer. 'We're working real hard on figuring what the right staffing level is.'

Parents want promises kept

Steve Rawley, a North Portland parent and activist on school equity issues, said parents are trying to hold district leaders accountable for the promises made.

'There's kind of a storm of discontent brewing here on a number of fronts,' he said. 'Part of the problem here is, we're pushing ahead with this K-8 thing without first justifying it. What's the benefit of it? … We need to take a step further back and re-evaluate the decision in the first place, because otherwise we're just going down the wrong path.'

While Peninsula isn't actually losing staffing positions, it's still in a crunch, Leggett and Barker say. With no additional teaching staff, and a projected number of students who don't fit neatly into one or two ideal class sizes, Barker said he probably will be forced to offer three split-grade classes: first/second, second/third and fifth/sixth.

Split classes are not ideal, he said, because they make it difficult for curriculum planning, especially in the upper grades as content gets more specialized.

Barker said he's trying to make the best of it. 'We staff the best way we can with the resources and FTE we're given,' he said. 'Obviously I'd always like more. The more staff I can get, the more things I can offer. My goal is to keep class size down so we can give as much individual attention as we can.'

Leggett, who is concerned that a third of neighborhood students transfer to other PPS schools, isn't as forgiving.

'The increase is so teensy,' she said. 'That's just one little thing, a crumb, not the darn cookie. We don't have what we need.'

District says money's tight

Heidi Franklin, the district's chief financial officer, said the district has tried to address the needs of K-8 schools despite receiving less funding from the state Legislature than hoped for.

Under Superintendent Carole Smith's new staffing formula, K-8 schools of 300 students and up will receive a half-time counselor, and those with more than 500 will receive a full-time counselor. K-8 schools also will get built-in funding for algebra teachers and enrichment such as art, dance, theater, language, music or physical education.

Franklin said she's sympathetic to the plight of smaller schools, which always will have more trouble offering a wider breadth of programs simply based on their numbers. 'We're not pretending it's adequate or we are where we want to be,' she said. 'There's no new money. We've stabilized at the bottom of funding.'

Leggett and other parents say Peninsula ended up with the short end of the stick when the district closed its two neighboring schools, Kenton and Ball elementaries, in recent years. Kenton students were sent south to Chief Joseph School, and Ball students were reassigned to the new school in the Portsmouth neighborhood, Rosa Parks.

'If they did the boundaries differently, we wouldn't be a small school,' Leggett said. 'We're just one of those little-bitty schools that's off the radar.'

School board member David Wynde, a member of the board's finance, audit and operations committee, also is aware of problems like those at Peninsula. '(The staffing allocation) is not enough districtwide,' he said. 'It's not enough anywhere. That's why declining enrollment is such a squeeze. It really bites.'

For information on the budget, see www.budget.pps.k12.or.us.

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