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Honor unique role of Benson

The Portland School Board must act quickly to preserve the rich educational history of Benson Polytechnic High School and invest in the school’s critically important connection to Oregon’s growing work-force needs. Benson is a proud and architecturally stunning school that for decades produced not only well-educated students but young people with career- and technology-based training who were prepared to contribute to the work force. Oregon needs Benson operating at its best again. Over the next 10 years, Oregon’s economy will require an estimated 650,000 new workers. One-third of those workers will fill newly created jobs, but the rest are needed to take the place of retiring employees, especially baby boomers. Hardest hit will be manufacturers, health care employers, contractors and business-service firms. These are employers who in the past could rely on Benson to graduate well-educated students with work-force experience and training. Unfortunately, Benson is a high school in serious transition and is experiencing changes that many staff members and school supporters say are not good, as detailed in a Sept. 14 Portland Tribune story by Jennifer Anderson. School’s been losing ground Critics say that the school district’s high school enrollment and transfer policies and adherence to the federal No Child Left Behind Act have conspired to fill Benson with lower-achieving students from throughout Portland and with students who are not interested in the school’s traditional career-based educational programs. Along the way, declining enrollments at Benson have caused some academic and job training programs to be dropped. Some supporters fear that Benson someday soon will be closed. District officials deny the school is on the chopping block. And they have promised to study the career and technical classes offered at Benson and other Portland high schools to determine their connection to work-force needs. Meanwhile, the district is planning to create a task force made up of high school staff, community members and school district administrators to study Benson’s needs and make recommendations. Treat Benson differently The history side of such a study should not be overdone. Many of the concerns about Benson are well-chronicled in the minutes of Benson site council meetings held over the past few years. At the same time, more and more graduates of Benson are publicly coming to the school’s defense. Employers and work-force advocates already agree on the need for more young people to learn the skills of well-paying manufacturing and health care jobs. The Portland school board can jump-start Benson’s rebirth by telling the task force members that the district supports the high school and its commitment to technical training. The school board also should approve educational and admission requirements at Benson that are different from other Portland high schools. Why should the school board act promptly and agree to different admission requirements at Benson? Because Benson should be considered a high school unique in Portland and one that teaches not only traditional academic subjects but emphasizes work-force and technology training for all who attend. Benson won’t be saved by another study, but by actions and policies that enable the high school to specialize in serving students who want career-based education — and by serving Oregon employers who are crying for well-trained, smart workers.