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Kids get say on city of future

Effort to keep schools healthy involves the whole community
by: L.E. BASKOW, Kids surveyed at Rigler School said they like recess and lunch, but they also want to see a neighborhood cleanup, better playground equipment, safer places to walk, and less gang activity and violence.

The survey results weren’t that surprising. But they were meaningful. When asked by their peers what they liked best about their school and neighborhood, the kids at Rigler School in Northeast Portland said they liked recess and lunch, the large number of parks and kids in their area, and their after-school Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program. But they wanted to see some sort of neighborhood cleanup, better playground equipment, safer places to walk, and less gang activity and violence. Their feedback — shared with staff from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Portland Public Schools last week — will be compiled along with other community voices as part of the citywide “schools, families, housing” initiative. The initiative, still taking shape, so far includes the recent distribution of $425,000 in grants to organizations that will come up with creative ways to keep kids in city schools. Former Commissioner Erik Sten, who stepped down from the Portland City Council on April 4, created the initiative last year in hopes of boosting enrollment in the district. He hoped to counter the trend of families fleeing to other school districts due to expensive housing and other livability issues. This chunk of the plan, in which Rigler is involved, will focus on the needs of the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods in Northeast Portland. The Cully/Concordia plan began in September and will continue through June with recommendations to City Council and Portland’s school board. Planners say it’s the first microlevel look at planning in the city that will center on the schools in the area. “This is the first project where we said, ‘Let’s look at … schools as essential components of community planning,’ ” said Deborah Stein, the city’s supervising planner. “We stepped away from our role as land-use planners to look at the bigger picture. … We want to get an overall assessment of assets, issues, problems, concerns, before we decide where to go.” After receiving all the feedback, planners hope to spur new community partnerships and find funding for things like neighborhood beautification efforts and rent assistance to families, since children are forced to move from school to school if their parents can’t maintain housing. While no city money currently is set aside for such efforts, “if money does become available, we have a plan to follow that is reflective of community desires,” Stein said. Effort may serve as model The plan also will serve as a guide to the district’s ongoing facilities process, in which the school board will decide which buildings to upgrade and replace. It could be used not just for this cluster of schools but for others as well. “We’re thinking it could be a methodology that gets established in this study that might apply to other parts of town,” said Doug Capps, a project manager with the district. Besides Rigler, 5401 N.E. Prescott St., other area schools include Harvey Scott School, half a mile east at 6700 N.E. Prescott St., and Faubion School, two miles northwest at 3039 N.E. Portland Blvd. There’s also the former Whitaker School site, 5700 N.E. 39th Ave., where the district has set aside 3.5 acres on the north end for a future school. There’s some buzz that Faubion — a 1950 building in shoddy condition — could be rebuilt at the Whitaker site, with its boundary expanded to relieve crowding at Rigler and Scott. Said Faubion Principal Molly Chun: “My hope for children at Faubion is that they are really able to be in a building at some point that offers them everything they deserve in a 21st-century school. That’s my hope and dream.” The school, with its 350 students in pre-kindergarten to seventh grade, has a huge deficit in computers and technology and will fill its last classroom next year with the addition of an eighth grade. Lunchtime crush is a big one Rigler and Scott have their own set of issues: They became so crowded when they added eighth grade this year that their eighth-graders now are attending a special academy at Madison High School. “Our physical facility is a huge thing,” Rigler Principal Kristie Cunin said, noting that the building has no space for a computer lab or teaching specialists, so students and staff are “working in nooks and crannies.” With 565 students in a building made for 400, the school’s cafeteria must hold lunch in four shifts, she said. And the lack of sidewalks and bus access outside the building makes it difficult for parents who don’t drive to get there, especially in bad weather. “It’s difficult for people to get here because we don’t have public transportation, and we have the largest enrollment catchment area in the district,” she said. Work is being done to tackle these issues. The school has a “visioning committee,” made of staff, site council members, the Parent Teacher Association, and others, to talk about what to tackle for next year. At Scott, a group of parents who call themselves “Padres Motivados,” or “motivated parents,” meet at the school for coffee every Friday morning to talk about ways the school could get involved in the community. On their wish list, they’d love to see English language and parenting classes offered at the school to help with their children’s education. They’d also like a Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program to be offered at the school. Neighbors have say, too In addition to the needs of the schools themselves — as vocalized by students, parents and administrators — Kathy Fong Stephens, a consultant with the Portland communications firm Barney and Worth Inc., is tapping into the ideas of others in the community as the outreach coordinator for the project. So far she’s talked with 70 people who have a stake in the neighborhoods. She’s spoken with church groups, members of the Latino and other minority communities, business owners, neighborhood activists and others. One issue that often comes up is gentrification; some Concordia residents have noticed rising housing costs along with an influx of young professionals, many without children. Others speak to their hopes for the schools. Tony Fuentes, co-chairman of the Concordia Neighborhood Association, co-owns Milagros, a baby boutique on Northeast 30th Avenue. He and his wife have turned the shop into a community space for birth classes, play dates and mommy yoga, and he’d like to see the schools in his neighborhood follow the same model. “In my childhood, school was a community gathering place, you would just go there,” he said. “In my experience with neighborhood schools in Portland, sometimes there’s this separation; sometimes accessing them for public meetings can be a protracted process. There’s so many things that could be happening at the school that I feel aren’t happening now.” Fuentes, who moved to the neighborhood from Seattle seven years ago for its affordability, diversity and family-friendliness, hopes that when the Cully/Concordia plan is wrapped up city and school leaders will come up with a way to weave schools back into the community. Personally, Fuentes has chosen to send his daughter to the Portland Village School, a public Waldorf charter school about the same distance from the family’s home as the neighborhood schools, Faubion and Vernon. “Faubion and Vernon, I think, are excellent schools for a traditional setting, but the reality of what happens in the classroom is all these requirements on testing,” he said. “It didn’t fit with what my concept of kindergarten should be.” If it weren’t for the charter school, Fuentes said, his family would have chosen one of the neighborhood schools. “We wanted to stick with public school environment, what we grew up with,” he said. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.