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Protect neighborhood schools

MY VIEW • A new round of closures wouldn't help students, activists argue

One of the key thrusts of the Portland Tribune's Rethinking Portland Public Schools special section (Feb. 24) is that school closures are both necessary and good:

We think it is you who need to understand: Money spent in smaller, neighborhood-based schools is being used to better educate our children.

The research overwhelmingly shows that smaller schools work better in every way. They also cost less over time, due to higher graduation rates among students who attended smaller schools. With the childhood obesity epidemic, having our children walk or bike to school rather than being driven around town is a huge positive investment that will reduce our society's long-term costs. Neighborhood schools are a key foundation of neighborhood livability and quality of life.

Consolidation and warehousing of kids in large, centralized schools (even shiny, bright, new ones) may seem 'efficient,' but it is a recipe for yet another urban school district abandoned by the middle class.

We agree strongly that locating family support services in larger school buildings makes sense Ñ preschools bring young families into the schools and 'hook' them, thus increasing enrollment, but this also works for after-school day care, social service agencies and more.

We also agree that PPS needs a new capital bond, but it should be primarily to maintain and repair its existing school buildings, many of which are historic and worthy of preservation. We question whether new construction is cheaper than maintaining our existing investment.

You make much of the comparison with Beaverton, but fail to note that Beaverton is about to ask for a new capital bond to add more buildings. Beaverton's school buildings are overcrowded, so their current numbers are misleadingly low.

Moreover, comparing an urban, neighborhood-based, walkable school system with a suburban, car-based system is completely off base. Families choose to live in Portland based on having a neighborhood school close by. Yes, even if that means paying a bit more up front for the many significant benefits (both tangible and intangible) that a neighborhood school provides.

Any additional school closures must be undertaken with forethought, planning, and in cooperation with city and Metro planners. Given that enrollment is predicted to level out soon, we need a plan. We cannot keep lurching from year to year, closing schools willy-nilly. Yes, we know the funding crisis is acute. But closing yet more schools, even if we accept the district's inflated estimate of $1 million in savings per school, comes nowhere near closing the $57 million gap. It's like cutting off your arms when you lack a warm sweater.

We can't afford another round of closures in which PPS dishonestly tells parents that the closure is to give their children better educational opportunities. For starters, they need to tell the truth and say they want to fill up larger buildings, and that they have chosen the schools to be closed based on which properties are the most attractive for lease or sale.

Being honest with the community would be a huge step forward in avoiding the negative backlash against closures. Every family that leaves the district after a hamhanded, dishonest and disrespectful closure costs the district state per-student funding. That adds up fast.

Before it closes any more schools, PPS must work with the city and Metro to come up with a comprehensive, publicly vetted plan that addresses the desperate need for affordable family housing as well as the long-term best use of PPS facilities.

It makes no sense to close more schools without first factoring in where new housing developments are being planned or working on the root causes of the enrollment decline. The various 'silos' must work together and think this through if our city is to survive as a place where families live and send their kids to public school.

Jefferson redesign

Another of your 'five ideas' related to the Jefferson High School redesign:

As we (along with Jefferson students, teachers, and parents) pointed out in our 'naysaying' on the proposed reforms, the previous round of reforms and special academic programs were working well Ñ including the highest increase in test scores of any school in the city Ñ with teachers and students making great progress. There was no need to throw all this work and dedication out the window and start from scratch.

Moreover, how do we know the new programs/academies will actually result in increased enrollment Ñ as directed by the board's March 28, 2005, resolution creating the Jefferson Design Team Ñ since the more than 70 percent of Jefferson-area parents who send their children outside the neighborhood were never surveyed as to what would bring them back.

Unfortunately, it appears that Jeff is headed toward privatization, aka 'governance.' Privatization is threatening our district: increased numbers of charter schools, private foundation/grant money influencing major policy decisions, and a top-down 'business' model for our schools.

The authors are spokeswomen for the Neighborhood Schools Alliance (www.neighborhoodschoolsalliance.org), which was formed in March 2005 to strengthen and support neighborhood schools.