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Parents and kids can, and do, pick right path

Portland is a city that prides itself on having strong neighborhoods. In order to have strong neighborhoods there must be strong schools. However, not all of Portland's neighborhoods have strong schools.

This issue has led to discussion regarding Portland Public Schools' transfer policy. Most people have strongly expressed their concerns that the policy hurts neighborhood schools by allowing students to transfer out, causing a huge enrollment decline at some schools and an overcrowded situation at others. Many have suggested that the district should revise its policy to limit the number of students who can transfer out of their neighborhood schools.

The only problem is, what if your neighborhood school offers only a limited number of academic programs? What if the school's performance continues to remain low? What about the federal No Child Left Behind law? What's a parent living in that neighborhood to do with his or her child right now? These are important questions that need to be addressed by the district.

The voice that we have not heard from is the voice of parents who live in neighborhoods with low-performing schools and who choose to send their kids elsewhere. I had an opportunity to speak to one of these parents. She is a single mother with two sons in high school and a daughter who graduated from Portland Public Schools.

She believes parents are the ones responsible for making sure their child receives the best education possible. If this can't be accomplished in the neighborhood school, then the option to transfer out should be available. Based on her experiences, before No Child Left Behind, the option to transfer to another school was primarily limited to extenuating circumstances. Parents could not transfer their child away from neighborhood schools because of poor academics.

All her children attended the neighborhood elementary school, Faubion. When her daughter completed the fifth grade, she attended Whitaker Middle School, the neighborhood school. Her daughter's academic experience and parental interactions with teachers and staff were all positive.

However, at the completion of eighth grade, several of the teachers encouraged her to transfer her daughter away from the feeder school, Jefferson High School. They believed her daughter was an excellent student and would do better at another school. According to the teachers, Jefferson High School didn't academically challenge students and had low expectations for student achievement. The parent took the teachers' advice and transferred her daughter to Benson High School.

Some 12 years later, her oldest son completed elementary school, and she enrolled him at Whitaker. The administration and some teachers had changed, and her experience was negative. Her son was suffering academically and had a speech impediment. She was not able to talk or meet with the principal or teachers after making numerous attempts to contact them. This experience left her with a negative impression, and she found the staff and teacher quality to be unsatisfactory. At the end of the school year she decided to transfer her son to another school. The next year, she was able to enroll him at Beaumont Middle School.

The students who attend Beaumont feed into Grant High School, where her son now is a senior. Her youngest son also attended Beaumont but chose to attend Benson High School, where he now is a sophomore. He selected Benson because he is interested in electronics and mechanics, and Benson offered a professional technical program in this area.

This story is just one example of why parents choose to transfer their children to other schools. In the end, parents are going to do what's best for their child so that he or she can have a successful future. They can't afford to wait while the district tries to figure out how to improve their neighborhood schools.

Vanessa Gaston is president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Portland, a member of Oregon's State Board of Education and was on the Jefferson High School Design Team that studied how to realign the school.