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Benson opens its entry just a crack

PPS lets more ninth and 10th graders in, changes lottery rule


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Benson High School Robotics Team member Bronson Kim demonstrates how one of their creations works during an evening tour by parents of prospective students on Monday evening. Three years after limiting Benson Polytechnic High School’s enrollment to 850, Portland Public Schools will lift — but not remove — the cap this year.

Board member Tom Koehler, a vocal advocate for Benson as PPS’ career-technical education hub, says the action is a start but doesn’t go far enough.

“If we want Benson to be one of the best CTE schools in the nation, we are not going to get there by capping enrollment,” he says.

Koehler asked for a timeline and plan, including the optimal enrollment for a robust Benson, which has 821 students.

On Monday, the School Board approved a resolution that would admit 40 more freshmen and sophomores, as well as pilot a new “regional balancing tool” to guide Benson’s enrollment process rather than the random lottery now in place.

PPS officials say the new tool is needed because even with its enrollment cap, Benson has continued to draw more than two thirds of its students from the Roosevelt, Madison and Jefferson clusters.

“So while the cap has succeeded in limiting the number of students who choose to attend Benson instead of their community high school in those three clusters, it has proven to be a crude, imperfect tool that has failed to bring proportional regional balance to Benson’s student body,” according to the board resolution.

In an effort to produce more “regionally balanced results” — draw students from the Lincoln, Wilson, Cleveland, Grant and Franklin clusters — the district’s Enrollment and Transfer Office has developed a method of conducting the Benson lottery that it hopes will more evenly represent students across the district.

Officials say that multiple trial runs of the lottery with the new tool have brought a more representative Benson student body.

Because having more representation from Southwest and Southeast neighborhoods could dilute Benson’s racially diverse demographic, PPS will then make another adjustment.

To ensure that Benson maintain a socio-economically diverse population, Benson’s high-poverty applicants — those who qualify for free and reduced price meals — will be weighted for enrollment in their lottery application

process.

Balancing enrollment

Koehler has harsh words for the district’s cap on Benson, which was implemented before he was elected.

“The fear is that a successful Benson will take away enrollment from Madison, Jefferson and Roosevelt — therefore a cap is needed to stem the flow from those schools,” he says. “I believe this is a formula for planned mediocrity based on a zero-sum paradigm of individual site-specific schools.”

Koehler called for a “more regionally coordinated approach” to the high schools: “Right now we have eight individual high schools pitted against each other for enrollment, talent, resources and stature, with an inequity of resources that reflects the economic disparities of our city. An alternative to this divide-and-conquer mindset might be to combine and conquer.”

He proposes consolidating the eight comprehensive high schools and their feeder schools into several autonomous micro-districts that have multiple campuses, coordinated and staffed for success.

The board’s recent changes to Benson’s enrollment cap will take effect immediately, since the high school lottery and application process began Monday and runs through Feb. 21. The elementary and middle school lottery runs Feb. 3 to March 7.

Prior to Monday evening’s changes, Benson would be admitting 275 freshmen, with a wait list of 100; and 25 sophomores, with a wait list of 25.

Four years ago, the high school lottery involved a lot of shuffling of students from school to school.

Since PPS adopted a new high school framework in 2010, the district closed the Marshall campus and limited transfers to most schools to balance enrollment.

The only schools open to transfers have been Benson and the three schools that are still under-enrolled: Jefferson, Madison and Roosevelt.

This year Jefferson has 195 slots open in all; Madison and Roosevelt each have 80.

As a focus school, Benson involves a separate admissions process; the application asks applicants to indicate their interest in and commitment to Benson’s career and technical education experience.

Students and community members toured the campus twice this week. The school’s information session is set for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5.

Benson’s annual Tech Show is set for 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 13 and 14.