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Racial equity next for schools

New policy seeks to address gaps in achievement
by: Christopher Onstott Sixth-grader Sophia Sloan waits to be picked up after school at the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women, one of the successful spin-offs of Jefferson High School. After years of struggles, Jefferson transforms into a Middle College for Advanced Studies this fall. District leaders cite equity as the reason for the change; a new policy focuses on race-based equity.

Fresh off their attempt to fix crumbling school buildings, Portland Public Schools leaders will take on yet another weighty topic: race.

The board on June 13 is set to adopt a 'Racial Educational Equity Policy,' which contends that the district's 'historic, persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color is unacceptable.'

Efforts to address the issue 'have been largely unsuccessful,' the policy states, adding, 'Race must cease to be a reliable predictor of student achievement and success.'

The policy promises that within three months, Superintendent Carole Smith will deliver a plan to implement six goals the board has outlined.

At the moment, the goals don't include specifics, or price tags.

They range from 'The district shall create multiple pathways to success in order to meet the needs of our diverse students …' to 'All staff and students shall be given the opportunity to understand racial identity, and the impact of their own racial identity on themselves and others.'

Another goal has to do with hiring 'linguistically diverse and culturally competent' staff, and another with reducing the over-representation of minorities in special education and discipline, and their under-representation in talented and gifted programs and Advanced Placement classes.

District leaders laud the policy as long-overdue and meaningful work. It caps four years of efforts to train every teacher and staff member in 'Courageous Conversations' - a diversity training led by California-based expert Glenn Singleton.

The district has paid a total of $682,700 in contracts with Singleton's Pacific Educational Group.

Race is still a factor

A roomful of minority community leaders lauded the school board during its first reading of the proposed policy May 9, applauding when Smith declared that the policy marked a 'historic moment.'

'Portland will now have the opportunity to join only a handful of districts in the nation placing what I've been told is one of the strongest racial equity policies on record,' said Tamala Newsome, principal at Rosa Parks School in North Portland.

Consuelo Saragoza, a public health advocate, also credited the district for being a leader. Yet she added: 'The emphasis for me is the accountability. How will that be shown, what are the milestones to that and how will we know the kids are really being successful? How will their parents know they're really being successful?'

One longtime school activist, however, wonders why the proposed policy is focused solely on race, rather than socioeconomics - considering that poor white children are struggling in school and life as well.

'I truly do get it that racism is a problem in Portland,' says Carrie Adams, a Lents resident who most recently tried to save Marshall High School from closure.

'I don't doubt that there are problems and a lot of discrimination based on race,' she says. 'But I think that focusing entirely on race and not looking at socioeconomics leaves out a large group of students who don't have an advocate.'

Adams worries that as the district works to close the racial achievement gap, many of the lower performing white students could fall by the wayside.

Alfonso Lopez-Vasquez, assistant professor of education at Pacific University, also commends the school district's mission, but notes that 'it is the delivery that is critical.'

Having worked on diversity issues and bilingual education since the 1970s, he is now the assistant provost for diversity at the university. He says racial minorities 'carry the burden of inequities' in housing, employment, transportation and livability as well as education.

But he concedes that the district could have included socioeconomics as part of the conversation.

'There's a disadvantaged non-minority population also, definitely the new immigrants coming in from refugee camps,' he says. 'We are creating a new underclass with those groups. We need to respond to that.'

District spokesman Matt Shelby says focusing on race was a strategic move: 'It's easier to have a conversation about disparities between poor kids and rich kids, and kids that don't speak English and those that do. The race conversation is the one that is all too often avoided.'

He adds: 'As a district, we certainly recognize that there are other groups of students that are not being served as well as they could, and we're doing things on all fronts. But this particular piece focuses on race. When you look at the data and account for all other things, race is still there.'

According to the latest district data, at Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson high schools, 70 percent of the 1,033 white students enter 10th grade on track to graduate. Only 36 percent of 149 black students do. That's a 34 percentage-points gap between white students and the lowest performing racial or ethnic group in those schools.

Meanwhile at Franklin, Madison, and the Jefferson, Roosevelt and Marshall small schools, 51 percent of the 420 white students enter 10th grade on track to graduate. Only 24 percent of students of color do. The gap is 27 percentage points.

'Focus on Diversity'

The proposed equity policy comes up for a vote just as the district wraps up its 'Focus on Diversity' film and lecture series. The final talk is a Thursday, May 26, lecture by Tony Hopson Sr., an outspoken voice in schools and president of Self Enhancement Inc.

Titled 'Best practices in serving students of color who are over represented in underachievement data,' the talk is from 4 to 6 p.m. in the board room at district headquarters, 501 N. Dixon St.

Other talks and films have focused on over-representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, institutional racism, and dislocation of Portland's black community.

To provide written comment on the policy through an online survey, visit: www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22CCC7EEMKU/.

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