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Hollyrood proposal shows wrong priorities

My View • Strength of neighborhood schools ebbs with rise of magnet system

It's a sticky wicket when Portland Public Schools not only leaves 'special' programs untouched but also increases support for them when a school like Hollyrood Elementary in Northeast Portland Ñ what should be considered the Little Engine That Could Ñ may close.

Hollyrood by all accounts likely will close, but its passing represents more than just its inability to house more kids in the proposed K-8 construct.

The proposed closing of Hollyrood, which serves grades K-3, represents the school district's preference for wealth-building outreach through its specialty programs under the drumbeat of 'choice,' rather than embracing and modeling after the most unlikely of successes, the neighborhood school that held to the classic community model and not only survived Ñ but thrived.

In a city celebrated for its environmentalism, bustling and distinctive inner-city neighborhoods, great walking streets and increasingly clogged rush-hour commutes, the magnet concept betrayed the local school system, requiring parents to take children out of their own neighborhoods by car or make an expensive move, a 'choice' available only to the financially advantaged.

Specialty programs have inadvertently diluted community interest and connection to the local schools Ñ such a meaningful part of Portland neighborhoods historically, and such an obvious way to keep them supported. Despite some imperfections, local Portland schools once stood as a symbol of community.

The placement of specialty schools inside neighborhood schools has created a schizophrenic environment where school communities under one roof are divided into the perceived specialty 'haves' and community 'have-nots.' The same divided sentiments surround the community versus specialty schools districtwide.

Of course it's difficult to deny any seeming innovations in educational opportunities at PPS, but families deserve to feel that they are receiving an education 'in kind' in order for the schools to succeed. And are these specialty programs themselves actually succeeding?

Many inside current specialty programs report they are ill-conceived and not functioning well. Others who have the flexibility to attend private schools but are willing to stay in the public schools for now do not see these specialties as the reason to stay. It's the Hollyrood experience most are seeking Ñ a neighborhood experience that private schools could never offer.

By their very nature, the specialty schools and community schools are philosophically at odds with each other. The classic Portland model believed that arts, sciences, history, reading, math, languages and physical education work best in synergy with one another, not as isolated specialties, particularly at the exploratory, elementary level.

Most educators worth their salt would cede that education should be a wide mosaic to assemble over time, not a narrow specialty that turns kids into 'little professionals.' Yet the magnets clearly support the early specialization of children requiring a tracking decision by parents even before children can read or pick up a flute.

The definition of a private school and a public school cannot continue to be blurred by Portland Public Schools. More curriculum-specialty window dressing is not the answer in the face of closing well-performing community schools.

The district should somehow integrate the magnets back into the community schools and rejoin the parents and children in a well-funded, united system and stop trivializing the very foundations of a basic education by rubber-stamping elitist programs that enforce a two-tiered public school.

Portland Public Schools need only look in its own archives to rediscover what those of us who are products of the district and have children in it are fairly certain of Ñ the simplicity and fairness of the 'classic' K-8 system that included a strong mixed curriculum in every school, right in each family's backyard.

Mary E. Campbell is a Portland-based writer and musician whose daughter attends Bridlemile Elementary School in Southwest Portland.