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School choice is often less filling

Fewer transfers are allowed in name of more balanced schools
by: Christopher Onstott Seventh-grader Dylan Wells (left) might have applied for a spot at Grant High School when it's time to start high school but now doesn't have that choice. New PPS transfer rules aim to balance enrollment at all the schools. Dylan’s mother, Neeley Wells, helped advise the change and believes it's for the best.

Love your neighborhood but not your neighborhood school?

In the past, it's been as easy as the click of a mouse to enroll in another Portland Public School across town - whether it's in search of a language immersion program, environmental or art focus program, a school with a drama club, AP classes, or simply a better 'vibe' or reputation.

No questions were asked; families simply entered the school choice lottery in February and were randomly selected for enrollment at their first-, second- or third-choice school as long space was available.

Last year, 3,518 students (7 percent of the district's enrollment) took advantage of the lottery and applied for a transfer.

That's all about to change.

This fall, the district is clamping down on the transfer process in an effort to balance enrollment at the neighborhood schools, one third of which Supt. Carole Smith says are too crowded or underenrolled.

In other words, the unintended consequence of unfettered school choice has been a huge disparity in enrollment, staffing and programming that the school board is trying to remedy in the name of equity.

'We're not saying choice is horrible,' says Judy Brennan, enrollment and transfer office director. 'We just can't let choice drive the system.'

This month, as the school transfer lottery kicks off, most of the district's families will get their first good look at the new reality.

Here are the major changes, at a glance:

• Five high schools and 12 elementary and K-8 schools will be completely closed to transfers. Those include the five largest comprehensive PPS high schools (with more than 1,350 students), and other schools that have been deemed overcrowded according to the district's staffing and programming ratio.

The closed high schools are Cleveland (1,520 students), Franklin (1,480), Grant (1,565), Lincoln (1,476) and Wilson (1,387).

Since the Marshall Campus closed last year, sending those students into neighboring schools, the high schools have begun to fall into balance, but still under-enrolled are Roosevelt (748 students) and Madison (1,161), which will both accept transfer students.

The elementary and K-8 schools closed to transfers won't come as a surprise to anyone, since they've been bursting at the seams: Abernethy, Alameda, Astor, Beverly Cleary, Chief Joseph, Faubion, Forest Park, Harrison Park, Laurelhurst, Llewellyn, Rigler and Scott.

A limited number of exceptions will be made for special circumstances. Hardship petitions are due March 9.

The school choice lottery has dwindled during the past two years. In spring 2010, 1,125 students participated in the lottery. That fell to 811 students last spring. This time, Brennan is expecting an even bigger drop with the reduced amount of choice.

Yet many families might already be expecting to be disappointed. Last year, 298 students applied to transfer into Grant but just 42 were accepted, mostly in the freshman class, due to the effort to balance the high schools' enrollment.

Large numbers of transfer applicants were turned away from the other comprehensive high schools as well.

Families yearning for choice have options, however. Jefferson Middle College, in the midst of its first year as a focus option school, has 583 students and will accept 195 transfer students, mostly at the freshman level. Benson, at 889 students, will open its doors to 280 freshmen and sophomores.

The Young Womens' Academy at Jefferson also has space for 70 applicants, and the language immersion programs at the large high schools have a limited number of spaces.

Brennan says the transfer limitations come at a good time, after the improvements across the board from the recent high school redesign: 'The similarities are so much greater across the comprehensive schools than they used to be,' she says. 'People may not be expecting that. Because of that, we don't leave a whole lot of room for moving between schools.'

• No more NCLB priority: Students who've enjoyed priority status in lottery in past years due to their school's 'failing' status under the No Child Left Behind law will no longer get that benefit, since the state of Oregon is seeking a waiver from the law this spring. If the waiver is not approved, the district will hold a summer lottery for those students.

Making big decisions

One unintended consequence of the limited transfer rule is that schools will take in less diversity from across town and more closely mirror their own communities.

Schools with more transfers tend to be more diverse. Benson's student body, for example, comes from across the district and is a stunning mix: 27 percent black, 26 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian.

Alan Ellis, who taught in PPS for 30 years before retiring, recalls teaching at Franklin, Wilson and Lincoln and appreciating the diversity transfer students brought to campus.

It would be ideal 'if we could do something with the transfer program that would also promote the integration of races, income levels and mixing of the east and west in some way,' Ellis says. 'The closest you get is with the focus schools, and they can only take so many kids.'

Ellis is a member of the district's committee on enrollment and transfer issues, which helped advise the changes.

Next up for the committee: to iron out transfer policy details such as whether to continue co-enrolled sibling priority transfers, as well as tackling the over- and under-crowding situations at other school clusters.

The Alameda overcrowding discussion - a complicated puzzle and politically sticky discussion, he says -'set the template. … I think the worst of the process is over with.'

Neeley Wells, chairwoman of the district's committee on transfers and enrollment, also believes the district is headed in the right direction. The Southeast Portland mother chose to enroll her daughter at Sunnyside K-8 Environmental School for kindergarten. Her daughter is now in seventh grade and approaching her next big school decision: which high school to attend.

A year ago, Wells says, her daughter would've been able to follow her friends and apply for a transfer into any of the large high schools. Now all signs point toward her neighborhood school, Franklin, or the focus option schools, which she may decide to explore.

'I'm truly, deeply convinced that I don't have a right to choice for the sake of choice for my daughter if it diminishes the quality of education for another kid,' Wells says. 'None of our decisions are heartbreaking. They all provide her with a quality education.'


Need help choosing a school?

PPS is hosting two more Parent Academy workshops, which include free information, dinner and child care. 'Making the right choice for your child's education' is 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 (Scott K-8 School) and March 7 (Rosa Parks Elementary). To register, or for more information, call 503-916-3080.