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School choice data adds up

Backers and foes of transfer policy warm up to debate that goes public this summer

Just under half of Portland Public Schools students who transfer to other schools do so to pursue special programs, while 13 percent do so to flee underperforming schools, according to new data collected by the district.

The rest use the transfer system to join their siblings at another school, take advantage of full-day kindergarten or after-school programs, be closer to home or a parent's workplace, and move after the closure of a neighborhood school.

Only 2 percent of students surveyed said they were transferring due to 'dissatisfaction.'

This and a host of other new information about why and where students choose to attend school in Portland is bound to shed some light on the familiar debate around school choice.

An outside audit blasted the district's liberal transfer policy last year for being inequitable and too complex, prompting the district to promise a review.

Today, the school board's student achievement committee will pore over the maps, charts and other data and use it to frame the community discussion over just how, and how much, to alter the policy.

Public meetings will be set for this summer, and the board is expected to take up the issue this fall. The debate promises to be a robust one, considering Portlanders' passions for both neighborhood schools and school choice.

On one side are school choice advocates like Betsy Richter, who lives in Irvington and sends one child to her neighborhood school, Fernwood Middle School, and another to Buckman Elementary, a focus option in Southeast.

'I believe in order to keep enrollment high, we have to do everything we can to give parents choice,' Richter said. 'We also have to support neighborhood schools. It's a Catch-22. You can't tell people they can't switch, because they'll leave the district or they'll go to private schools.'

On the other side are fierce neighborhood school advocates like Jefferson Campus parent Nancy Smith, who says that the district's liberal policy has undermined schools by skimming off the students with the means and know-how to transfer - usually the more affluent. A June 2006 audit by the city and county auditors came to the same conclusion.

'The policy currently is perpetuating inequity,' said Smith, who teaches in the Beaverton School District and recently invited Beaverton Superintendent Jerry Colonna to Jefferson to talk about his school choice policy.

'The more you allow students to transfer out of a school and you lose your (full-time employee allotment), the less you can offer, the less desirable that school is,' she said.

Smith said she'd like to see Portland move toward Beaverton's system by ending transfers from neighborhood school to neighborhood school; offering the same breadth of courses and programs at each school; and detaching focus option programs from neighborhood schools, instead making them centrally located and equally available to all students regardless of whether they live in the neighborhood.

'Neighborhood schools should not be cannibalizing one another,' she said. 'It's unfair that students and families in certain parts of the city feel that they don't have decent neighborhood schools to go to.'

Judy Brennan, who oversees the district's enrollment and transfer office, disagrees that the current policy promotes inequity. She says the new numbers show that the differences in schools are more of a reflection of neighborhood socioeconomics, not the transfer policy.

'There's these big gulfs due to where we live,' she said. 'There's not fairness and equity between every school in the district. Even if you have a very fair and equal process, in the end you need to think it's not about this lottery process, it's about all the other things going on.'

Good ideas may be copied

As far as strengthening the neighborhood schools, Brennan said several are working on their own improvement plans or creating new options for students, such as the Young Women's Academy on the Jefferson Campus.

Brennan's staff also has formed some early recommendations to the school board in hopes that the policy will be tweaked and improved, not overhauled.

The recommendations include replicating thriving programs across the district, coming up with strategies for unpopular school choices and providing extra support (such as social services) to the low-income students who transfer to other schools, because their federal Title I money doesn't follow them to other schools.

'When you set up unique programs that really can attract and retain and support really high-achieving kids, you're also giving those high-achieving kids a reason to leave the neighborhood,' she said. 'It's a tough issue but it's a global issue, not unique to Portland or our policy.'

Complexity countered

The school board implemented the current policy in 2002, which created a lottery of transfer requests designed to promote equity and diversity throughout the district.

The policy has undergone various changes over the years, due to No Child Left Behind and other external forces.

The June 2006 audit made two other major charges, one being that Portland's transfer policy is too complex.

Brennan concedes that there are operational complexities that must be worked out, but that Portland's policy is 'less complex and far more flexible' than similar districts school leaders looked at. It's also the only one that guarantees students placement in their neighborhood school.

Brennan said that since the audit, her office has taken some actions to improve the process such as posting the number of slots available at each school so parents could do some planning.

The transfer office Web site (www.enrollment.pps.k12.or.us) also has been streamlined, and there's more content in languages besides English.

Finally, the audit charged that Portland's transfer policy decreases diversity and achievement in the schools. Yet several map overlays show minimal differences in most schools' achievement before and after transfers.

The socioeconomic makeup of each school cluster (judged by percentage of students on free and reduced lunch) shows not much change either. For instance, schools in the Lincoln High School cluster began with a 9 percent free and reduced lunch rate before transfers and 11 percent rate afterward; in the Marshall cluster, it's 69 percent beforehand and 75 percent afterward.

Both schools are the furthest from the district's average of 44 percent on free and reduced lunch, but making all schools hit that level is not a stated goal of the district, Brennan said.


Related graphic

Portland public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals after transfers