On Wednesday, about 4,000 students at 10 of the Portland School District’s lowest-performing, highest poverty schools will stay home from school. All but two of those schools — designated as “Focus” and “Priority” schools by the state — happen to be in North and Northeast Portland.

District leaders are using the days for professional development for teachers, an added level of training required by the Oregon Department of Education to help boost those schools’ achievement and hold them accountable for their performance.

That means five less school days for the district’s most struggling students, since in addition to Wednesday the Focus and Priority schools will have four more no-school days, one per month, through the rest of the school year.

Prior to January the Focus and Priority school training had been held once a month during a two-hour late-start school day.

While there’s been little to no noise about the change, many parents say they were shocked at the short notice and frustrated by what they see as a step backwards at closing the achievement gap.

Michele Arntz, Rigler School PTA member, calls it "a significant step backward in the concept and practice of closing the achievement gap. Given the amount of time and money the district has spent on preparing, discussing, presenting and implementing its equity initiative, this new plan to reduce instruction time for such a specific population seems like a glaring oversight."

Arntz sent a letter to the school board and district officials on Dec. 17, asking them to reconsider the change and at find a way to maintain the school year in coming years. She did not hear back.

PPS Regional Director Antonio Lopez admits the decision was a tough call, but he saw no other way.

“We had a hard time debating that, but what we know is if we keep do what we’re doing we’re doing, we’re not getting the results we need,” he told the Tribune on Monday. “We have to figure out how to better utilize what we have and find ways to improve on it, look deeper, figure it out by looking at the data. We hope it will give us better results.”

Lopez says teachers are constantly saying they don’t have enough time with their peers to look at student data, which is one of the “best practices” other schools use to get good results.

“It’s not quantity, it’s the quality” of professional development for teachers, he says.

The district gave principals the choice of whether to adopt the no-school days; if they did not, he imagines they are probably squeezing the training into staff meetings or other slots during the day.

Going forward, Lopez says, the district will monitor progress at each of the priority and focus schools, and “if we can’t quantify it’s better,” the no-school days will not continue next year.

Artnz and other parents say the training may pay off, but they don’t have any information about what it is for, except that it’ll include grade-level meetings on planning, assessments, data and curriculum design; affinity study groups formed by topics of interest to teachers; Comprehensive Action Plan work groups on meeting their goals for the state; and 90 minutes for equity work (“understanding the role of race in our lives and classrooms”).

In a Dec. 5 note sent home with students, principals said the training “has proved beneficial for (federal) School Improvement Grant Schools who are already using a similar model.”

Nathan Means, another Rigler parent, doesn't doubt the district's good intentions, but says this change would never fly at the more affluent PPS schools.

"There's no way that higher performing, wealthier parents that are more plugged in wouldn't vocalize their position on this," he says. "In a tight budgetary situation, someone's gonna get screwed."

Means also points out that the schedule disruption just adds to the choppy school schedule, coming off winter break with several holidays ahead.

Since the district will not run school bus service for Focus and Priority schools during their no-school days, there's no transportation to the schools even though on-site child care is being provided by the SUN and Playworks programs.

Means says he has the privilege of being able to keep his second-grader home, but he knows others will have to scramble. Nearly half of Rigler's population is Latino; 85 percent receive free- or reduced-price meals.

Parents also question why the no-school days are not consistent for all of the district’s Focus and Priority schools: it’s only happening at the schools whose principals submitted a proposal.

"It's not a policy; it's not a plan; it's not an initiative, just something they're doing," says Arntz, who says she first heard about it through another school's website.

If teacher training is so important, she says, it should be funded and scheduled in the summer, so it doesn't add a burden to the district's most vulnerable families.

Closing achievement gaps

Ten of PPS' 15 Focus and Priority schools are adopting the no-school days: King Elementary, Ockley Green K-8, Rosa Parks Elementary and Woodlawn K-8 (all Priority schools), and Lane Middle School and Rigler, Sitton, Vernon and Woodmere elementaries (all Focus schools).

Those that are not include Madison High School (Priority), Roosevelt High School (Priority), Jefferson High School (Focus), César Chávez K-8 (Focus) and Whitman Elementary (Focus).

Priority schools are those that are ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Title 1 schools in the state based on Oregon’s new rating formula.

"These schools generally have very low achievement and growth and need additional supports and interventions to turn things around," according to the state."

Focus schools are in the bottom 15 percent, and “need additional support in closing the achievement gap and addressing achievement for historically underserved subgroups."

State education officials first identified the Focus and Priority schools last August, along with Model schools, which are in the top 5 percent, but PPS does not have any of those.

Oregon has identified 94 Oregon schools which will receive additional supports and interventions from the state to help increase student achievement and close persistent achievement gaps. Identification of these schools is one component of Oregon’s new accountability system approved in July by the U.S. Department of Education.

The rankings come as part of the new accountability system the state developed as part of its waiver application to No Child Left Behind, now known as the Elementary and Secondary Act.

For high schools, the accountability system uses measures including academic achievement, academic growth, subgroup growth, graduation rates, and subgroup graduation. For elementary and middle schools the first three measures are used.

Schools receive an overall rating based on how well they are doing in each of these areas.

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