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  • 22 Sep 2014

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Parents say district left academy behind

Tubman school supporters still want program to thrive
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Clarissa Taylor and her daughter Olivia Taylor-Matthews try to figure out which school she might attend next year if the Young Women's Academy closes. The school board is now set to vote on the proposed closure -- along with the consolidation of Humboldt K-8 -- on April 23.

There was a lot of anger at Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy Tuesday night.

Some parents and students wore purple, the school's color, in solidarity, to fight for the school to remain open -- for the second time in two years.

"If we can get a bus out to every high school to invite girls to look at Tubman, our enrollment problem will end in a month," says Jyothi Pulla, one of the mothers leading the fight.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith proposed in her April 2 budget that the four-year-old school -- which enrolls 200 girls in grades six through 12 -- close at the end of this year.

The school board had been scheduled to vote on it May 14, along with the rest of the $27.5 million in recommended cuts.

But on Tuesday, PPS Enrollment Director Judy Brennan said the board would instead make a decision April 23, so the district didn't leave the school community in limbo.

That's not what parents were hoping for.

"The process is totally flawed," Pulla says. "There were lots of people with great ideas for increasing enrollment. Why aren't we being approached for a real solution to the problem? A school like this is not the problem -- it's the solution to the very problem that led to this."

Young women attending Tubman hail from 30 middle schools throughout the district, parents say, so the school isn't "stealing" students or resources from any one school.

Some parents point out that the school's closure won't bring much in savings at all.

According to district facilities director Tony Magliano, closing Tubman would save $60,000 annually.

Closing Humboldt K-8 School to combine it with Boise-Eliot School, as also proposed by Smith, would save $40,000 annually. Both buildings must be kept at a minimum maintenance level to keep them from disrepair.

There's no vocal opposition to the Humboldt closure.

The proposed closures aren't for financial savings but are ripple effects of the $10 million in staff cuts districtwide, PPS spokesman Matt Shelby explains.

"When faced with a districtwide cut of 110 teachers, that means cuts at every building, including Young Women's Academy and Humboldt," he says. "And with that additional level of cuts, it wouldn't be possible to provide kids with the education they need. We already are subsidizing the program. If you're a program that needs additional resources beyond the formula allocation, that becomes a difficult sell in this environment. It's not fair to the rest of the district."

A done deal

At Tubman, meanwhile, parents are charging that district leaders have never allowed their program to grow, and have not given it the same support as it has Jefferson High School (having sprung from the 2006 Jefferson redesign effort).

Less than two years ago, Smith planned to block Tubman's expansion to high school grades. She withdrew it after parents protested.

The damage was done, however.

"We have full faith it will grow, if you only stop saying you're going to close us," says Pulla, whose two daughters have attended Tubman since its startup. "To hear the (recorded) voice of our superintendent on our phone machine, it is a done deal. It takes a lot of time to undo the damage."

Parents say there isn't another all-girls' public school in the state. It also has a rare focus on math, science and leadership, three areas where women are underrepresented in the workforce.

"It's a short-term gain for a long-term loss," says Pulla.

Like Benson Polytechnic High School, the Young Women's Academy is a districtwide focus-option school with no neighborhood boundaries of its own, so there is no built-in support base.

Yet she knows creative solutions abound: in her four years as a volunteer at the school, she managed to bring in $75,000 to support the school's media, math and music programs.

As a school district, she charges: "We're not thinking collectively."

Making big strides

In four years, Tubman's students have shown their girl power. At the PPS science fair in March, Tubman students won more awards than any other high school in the district. Tubman's girls have competed at the state level in spelling, geography and tennis. They made major strides in closing the achievement gap.

It's also one of the most diverse. Tubman's student body is one-third black and 15 percent Hispanic; 70 percent qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Two thirds are identified as "academic priority," those who meet a set of factors such as poverty and below grade-level performance.

Then there's the issue of equity, the district's recent focus.

"I think (the closure proposal is) another way of devaluing a community of color already lacking in cultural equity," says Teressa Raiford, a Tubman alum who's been a strong supporter of the women's academy before and during her run for a seat on Portland's City Council. "The communities of color are being targeted as a recipient of oppressive decisions."

Some have questioned why the proposed closures are not part of the district's enrollment balancing process if they're a size issue rather than budget issue.

Recently, the district led a process to adjust the boundaries and enrollment in Northeast Portland, since Alameda was overcrowded and Sabin was underenrolled. The meetings involved numerous meetings and reworked proposals. The "right-sizing" work will continue at other neighborhoods throughout the district.

"This obviously is a diversion form that process, but is in direct response to the budget cuts," Shelby says. "Ideally we'd have the time to take Humboldt and Young Women's Academy through that process next year. But with the size of the cut we're looking at, we don't have another year."

Apprehension and hope

Brenda Edin, mother of two girls at Tubman, has also fought for years to keep the school open.

She moved into the neighborhood specifically for the diversity, and was disheartened at the latest proposal.

At this point, she doesn't have any more energy to fight the district. She says students' middle school and high school years are challenging enough for families without being forced to deal with years of instability and transition in schools.

She must find new options for both of her daughters at Tubman, plus her son, who attends Boise-Eliot, because she doesn't have faith in the new consolidation effort.

"Harriet Tubman was Jefferson's attempt to raise up an underserved population of women and minority leaders," she says. "It worked. The school is among the most racially diverse in Oregon, providing much needed, STEM-based education for girls. Having immersed ourselves at the Young Womens Academy for the last two years, only to see it shut down despite the student successes, leaves me with great apprehension and minimal hope in the sustainability of another well-intentioned program in North Portland."