Reports put school choice, boundaries, upgrades on to-do list

Portland Public Schools’ decade-old enrollment and transfer system has allowed white schools to get whiter and black schools to get blacker, rich schools to get richer and poor schools to get poorer.

It’s also contributed to the overpopulation of crowded schools and underpopulation of empty schools.

So says a report handed to the Portland School Board on June 2 from the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment & Transfer, which spent 15 months studying the district’s enrollment and transfer policies and their impact on student achievement.

“Neighborhoods with relatively high concentrations of color end up with an even higher proportion in their neighborhood school,” according to the report. “The transfer system, in essence, enables a white flight, and schools end up being more segregated along racial lines.”

The 50-page report makes six recommendations to the board, basically calling for a complete overhaul of the system.

The process will stir up controversy for several reasons: It’s tinged with race; most parents love school choice and don’t want to see it taken away; and PPS doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to public processes.

“We’ve seen PPS really struggle to make those kinds of big changes move through smoothly,” says Oregon PTA Legislative Director Otto Schell. That said, Schell adds that parents in many neighborhoods have definitely come to see a need for the changes, and desperately want the board to approach the process with increased transparency and communication.

“Some schools are clamoring for change right now,” Schell says. “I do believe the district is going to have to earn the trust of the community.”

Parents in the Grant cluster met last week about the issue and expressed that they “wanted certainty, wanted the district to stick to a plan, not bring everybody to the brink and then back off,” Schell says. “They want leadership, well-informed decision-making.”

If that isn’t enough drama for PPS, the board just announced it also is launching a districtwide process to review and update existing school attendance boundaries.

That separate but parallel process came from another report presented June 2, by a team from Portland State University’s Center for Public Service and the National Policy Consensus Center. Both are units of PSU’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.

The group called for a process “that would engage diverse communities and create a sustainable framework for future boundary changes as PPS’ student population continues to change.” The board could choose to follow one of two approaches that would have the changes take effect in the 2015 school year, or one approach that would take effect in 2016.

Oh, and the board must decide its approach no later than August, the report urges.

All of this work comes in the midst of PPS’ school modernization work, well underway at Franklin and Roosevelt high schools.

Here’s the latest on that work:

• At Franklin, the board on June 2 unanimously approved the schematic design for their new building. Design development will now begin, and construction is slated to start next summer and last one year. Franklin students will move to the Marshall Campus next summer while the construction is underway.

• At Roosevelt, there’s been some controversy over the proposed design. The community got another look at a June 4 open house. Once that design is approved, construction is slated for next summer and will last two years. Students will remain on campus and occupy different parts of the building as construction progresses.

• Twelve other PPS schools will see upgrades this summer, including improvements like new roof installations, seismic strengthening, better accessibility and updated science classrooms. Five schools were completed last summer.

Northeast school looks for relief from overcrowding

Beverly Cleary School in Northeast Portland is like the old woman in the shoe.

It has so many children, it doesn't know what to do.

The K-8 school has occupied two campuses — Fernwood K-2 and Hollyrood 3-8 — since the districtwide consolidation in 2007 joined those small schools.

The Beverly Cleary community has found a way to make it work, so well in fact that the student population has grown about 11 percent each year.

This past fall the school community grew beyond their capacity and had to make a choice: Draw a line and enforce a new boundary, send non-neighborhood students back to their own school, or add a third campus to the mix.

Parents chose the latter.

Currently 130 first-graders and 95 Beverly Cleary third-graders ride the school bus to the Rose City Park campus, a mile west. That school — shuttered eight years ago during the district’s big K-8 conversion — housed Marysville School students after a fire and also is currently housing the district's 250-student ACCESS alternative program for gifted students.

“Our community has gone through so much transition. It’s upsetting to have things change year after year,” says Heather Leek, Beverly Cleary’s PTA president and the mom of a second-, fourth- and seventh-grader at the school.

Beverly Cleary has just about doubled in six years, with 820 current students and a total of about 900 projected for next year, Leek says.

Part of the growth was absorbing about half the students from Rose City Park’s closure in 2007.

The number of children in the neighborhood also has climbed drastically. “People are moving here to go to these schools,” Leek says.

As the school gets stronger, so does its capture rate (students that attend their neighborhood school rather than transfer out). It’s gone from 56 percent years seven ago to 74 percent now.

“But we have to have relief,” Leek says. “We cannot survive another year in these three buildings.”

With such high enrollment, the eighth-graders at Beverly Cleary were at 39 students per class this year. “There was no physical room to have another classroom,” Leek says. So to keep their curriculum, they opted for two classrooms to fit into the space.

The board is considering whether to roll out boundary changes for 2015 or 2016.

Some PPS parents will push for the extended timeline. Leek isn't one of them, even though she knows not everyone will be happy.

"For us, a boundary has to be drawn for 2015," she says. "We dont want it to be piece meal. It has to be in the grand scheme. But we have to have relief. We cannot survive another year in these three buildings. I think we will grow again.”

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