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Cluster plan ties parents in knots


Many worry changes would water down Chief Joseph success

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Chief Joseph School Principal Joe Galati hams it up with students during a visit to a crowded second-grade classroom.The story time rug in Erin Quinton’s classroom isn’t big enough to hold all of her students.

Some of her 31 second-graders spill onto the bare floor or sit in desk chairs behind the group.

That’s about six or seven more than what Quinton — a teacher of six years at North Portland’s Chief Joseph Elementary School — considers ideal.

“So much is behavior management,” says Quinton, whose teaching career began in California about 30 years ago. With 31 students, “we don’t have the materials; we don’t have the time. ... I don’t dive into as many rich, involved projects with 30-plus kids. I have some really needy kids.”

Ironically, Chief Joseph’s class sizes are a product of the school’s success.

Six years ago, the school was under-enrolled and needed to grow, by the district’s enrollment standards. Coincidentally, a wave of young parents moved into the gentrifying Arbor Lodge neighborhood, determined to send their children to their neighborhood school.

Enter Joe Galati, a gregarious fourth-generation teacher born and raised in North Portland, whose father principal at Roosevelt High School and mother taught at Woodlawn. After teaching at schools in North and Northeast Portland for 11 years, Galati came to Chief Joe five years ago, creating a positive energy with initiatives like his student-written “Friday Flier” newsletter and his highly visible presence in the building.

He created a buzz around the school and bolstered it with a $20,000 foundation grant for a study hall, literacy night, teacher training and family engagement. He and his staff also brought in University of Portland students as tutors.

As the school became attractive to other area families, Galati welcomed transfers, taking in 176 students in the past five years. Ten percent are from other Jefferson area schools; 17 percent are from elsewhere in the district.

Last year the school lost out on its federal Title 1 funds when the district changed the threshold from 40 percent to 60 percent. Chief Joseph’s is now at 48 percent.

This past fall Chief Joseph had to close its doors to transfers except for sibling allowances, for the first time.

Throughout the school’s transformation, the PTA has led continuous fundraisers and other events to build community support.

Then, in November, the school district dropped the bombshell news: that Chief Joseph was one of nine Jefferson cluster schools to undergo an enrollment balancing process, meaning that their school might close, be reconfigured or change in some other way this fall.

Six complicated options were presented, then narrowed to two in January, and on Friday will be down to one, as Superintendent Carole Smith is expected to announce her recommendation to the school board.

“We’d like to keep our kids intact,” Galati says. “Whatever the district needs us to do, we’ll do. Whatever’s brought to us, we’ll deal with. I am the district — we are the district.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal in February after another quick round of public comment.

Chief Joseph’s PTA decided to take a backseat in the process, but a group of 10 to 15 parents wanted to be more active. They formed what they call the Bucket Brigade, which quickly created a blog, cjbucketbrigade.com, conducted two parent surveys, showed up in force at school board meetings and began posting daily “data stories” on its blog to keep the community informed.

“The Bucket Brigade is not taking a position, we just see our position as presenting what we know,” says Kelly Bawden, a brigade member and parent of a first-grader. “We’ve been combing through the data and trying to shed some light on some things.”

The latest Bucket Brigade survey, released Tuesday, reveals that three quarters of Chief Joseph families and nearly all of the teachers and staff favor Option 2, a new blended elementary school feeding into Ockley Green Middle “junior middle college.”

They preferred that to Option 1, which proposed a “dual campus” between Chief Joseph and Ockley Green. Primary grade students would be based at Chief Joseph and middle-schoolers would go to Ockley Green.

Teachers left out of process

Quinton, the Chief Joseph teacher (who is also the Portland Association of Teachers representative at her school), says she doesn’t see either of the two options presented so far as the answer.

She was among a group of Jefferson cluster school teachers who gathered on Jan. 13 to discuss the enrollment balancing process. District leaders were shaping up the two options that they were going to release the next day. Teachers asked for information, but were denied, says Quinton.

“PAT was not asked for any input on the plans nor were we informed what the plan details were,” according to the letter the teachers wrote. Without any details to go on, the teachers drew up a series of “test” questions they believe PPS “should be able to adequately address when describing any decision it eventually comes to regarding the Jefferson cluster.”

Some of those 14 questions include: “Does the plan limit school transitions for each family?”, “Is the plan equitable for all students in the district in terms of distance to school and other transportation challenges?”, “Does the plan truly address the achievement gap?” and “Does the plan address overcrowded schools or does it shift student population to buildings that will become overcrowded?”

Chief Joseph, a K-5 school, is at 448 students, the bulk of whom are in the younger grades. A third fourth-grade classroom will have to be added next year.

Yet there’s no space to expand; the portable classroom on the playground already is used as a computer lab, music room and space for English language and special education groups to meet.

Chief Joseph attracts 62 percent of its neighborhood students, which is the highest “capture rate” of any Jefferson cluster school. Beach and Faubion schools’ capture rates hover around 60 percent; Boise-Eliot-Humboldt’s rate is unknown because the schools just merged; and Vernon (47 percent) King (44 percent), Woodlawn (41 percent), and Ockley Green (27 percent) draw less than half of their neighborhood students.

Punished for success?

Bawden, the Bucket Brigade mom, has lived across the street from Chief Joseph for 10 years and witnessed the myriad changes that have taken place in the neighborhood and school community.

“First and foremost, we’re part of the (Jefferson) cluster,” she says. “We want to be part of the solution; we want good outcomes for all of the kids in the cluster.”

Then again, Bawden says, she and other Bucket Brigade parents “don’t want to be another cautionary tale,” in the long list of North Portland schools that have been closed.

Chief Joseph parents and teachers — like others in the cluster, no doubt — just want the chance to keep doing well and building on their success.

“We’ve really fought a hard battle to get our school where it is,” she says. “We’d love to see other schools get like that, but we’d like to not be punished for our own success.”

Local leaders get a close view of classroom issues

More than two dozen local elected leaders, community leaders and others (including the Portland Tribune) spent the morning as “Teacher for a Day” in a Portland Public Schools classroom.

Organized by the Portland Association of Teachers, the annual event offered a glimpse into the on-the-ground realities faced by teachers every day.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey spent time in a fifth-grade classroom at Duniway Elementary in Southeast Portland, impressed that students were learning geometry and physics. He also liked the “creative use of minimal materials” available, he said at a PAT luncheon afterward.

Board members Bobbie Regan and Ruth Adkins both went to North Portland schools — Regan in an eighth-grade class at Ockley Green, and Adkins in a kindergarten class at James John, which is not part of the Jefferson cluster.

Regan said she saw the “struggling readers” and “thought how helpful it would be to have an aide or two.”

Said Adkins: “If only all of us got to spend our day reading books to children.”

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s chief of staff, Brendan Finn, sat in for his boss, quipping that “the maturity level at George Middle School is a little higher than City Hall.”

Commissioners Steve Novick and Nick Fish also participated, as well as state Rep. Lew Frederick, who returned to his children’s former school, Irvington. The student body is half white, half black there, and they just wrapped up a section on race — something he’s helped shape the discussion on throughout his public service.

Superintendent Carole Smith was matched with Vernon School, where she volunteered for safety patrol, greeted students as they entered the building, helped out with a fractions lesson in a fourth-grade classroom and facilitated a question-and-answer time for a student project. Ironically, the Q&A topic was the “injustice” of having a school closed.