Portland Public Schools is advancing a policy to allow African-American students displaced by gentrification to attend middle school in the historic heart of the city's black community.
But as part of the same process, the school district is seeking to displace an elementary school that serves an African-American population.
"It's so hypocritical," says Ron Herndon, a longtime education activist who once led the Black United Front in Portland. "The hypocrisy of that stinks to high heaven."
The contradictory proposals are an outgrowth of Portland Public Schools' years-long effort to balance enrollment and financial resources across schools. Due to housing shifts and district policies that allowed parents to shop for schools outside their neighborhoods, some programs have flourished while others have lost students, money and enrichment classes such as art, music and foreign languages. The rebalancing effort is now coming to a conclusion, with the school board aiming to have new boundaries at many schools on the district's east side for the 2018-19 school year.
Their task is a complicated puzzle. Every change to the district's current school-assignment map has ripple effects throughout the system.
Last Thursday, though, staffers at PPS unveiled a starting point for school-board discussions this fall. Their proposal includes redrawing boundaries in Northeast Portland to support a key goal: reopening Tubman Middle School. Taking a cue from the city of Portland and its "right of return" housing policy for North and Northeast Portland, PPS has vowed to set aside seats at Tubman for children of families pushed out of the city's inner core.
Just up the road, less than a mile and a half away, sits KairosPDX, a public charter school that seeks to accomplish what PPS has largely failed to do: adequately address persistent achievement gaps among students of color. Last year, more than half of the students at the year-round elementary school were African-American. Only in its fourth school year, Kairos reports promising results, and many of its graduates likely would attend Tubman, buoying enrollment.
There's one problem, though.
Kairos occupies the former Humboldt Elementary School, which PPS closed in 2012 after converting it to a K-8. Many newer white parents found schools for their children other than the neighborhood school, and enrollment suffered. Now PPS wants the school site back for ACCESS Academy, an alternative school for highly gifted students that last year served a student population that was 70 percent white and 2 percent African-American. (The district as a whole is 56 percent white and 10 percent black.)
The only thing more perplexing than PPS's proposal to move Kairos is that the district is pursuing it knowing that many families at ACCESS Academy, the school that would displace Kairos, say the relocation would harm them as well. "We weren't asking for that," says Heather Kent, an ACCESS mom.
History of Tubman
No history of Portland Public Schools' effort to promote racial equity is complete without a retelling of Tubman Middle School's origins.
In the 1970s, no middle school existed in the heart of Portland's black community. Instead, students from Humboldt and other elementary schools in inner North and Northeast Portland were forced to take buses to middle schools outside their neighborhoods. The stated goal was integration, but the burden fell entirely on black families. Tubman grew out of the anger, harnessed by Herndon's Black United Front, over the scattering of black children.
Under tremendous pressure in the 1980s, PPS opened Tubman in the Eliot neighborhood near the Rose Quarter. Its fortunes over the years rose and fell along with those of inner Northeast Portland's black community. PPS shuttered the middle school in 2007, filling its space with the Young Women's Leadership Academy that was technically part of nearby Jefferson High School. In 2012, PPS closed the girls school, too.
Now that enrollment is rising again across the district and parent activists are clamoring for additional middle schools, PPS plans to reopen Tubman and feed students from Boise-Eliot, King, Sabin and Irvington elementary schools to it. PPS has also said it would set aside 75 seats out of about 600 for children of families displaced by gentrification.
Unlike in the days of forced busing, students would have a choice whether they wanted to attend Tubman or their neighborhood school.
"It would be the height of injustice that the very community that fought for the creation of Tubman for its children will now be told that, because of racist policies that have forced this community out, those children cannot return to Tubman," Herndon told the school board July 11.
Tiffani Penson, vice chairwoman of the board at Kairos and a former staffer to then-Mayor Sam Adams, says Portland's ugly racial history will be repeating itself if the board allows ACCESS to displace Kairos's 130 students. "When things are good for black people, people find a way politically to destroy it," she says. "Are we just supposed to take that?"
Working against Kairos is the fact that it operates as a charter school. Generally speaking, charter schools in Portland have found hostile audiences at Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers union. PPS has refused repeatedly to lease other vacant buildings to charter schools, fearing they would siphon children and funding from neighborhood programs, although charter school students are also PPS students. PPS extended a short-term lease to Kairos at Humboldt in recognition of it special mission of working with underserved African-American students.
But it helps Kairos that ACCESS doesn't want to move to Humboldt. The alternative school now operates at the former Rose City Park Elementary School, which the district wants to re-open as a neighborhood program with a separate Vietnamese-language track.
ACCESS, which last year had about 350 students in first through eighth grades, would like to grow in order to accommodate more students who qualify, including students of color. And because of space limitations, its own middle-school program lacks the rich course offerings that larger K-8s or middle schools boast. Last year, 170 students sat on the waitlist, and in March a subcommittee of the school board voted to support expanding the program to address the unmet need.
The Humboldt facility is too small for that.
"We don't think we can meet community needs at Humboldt," says Kent, the ACCESS mom who's served as a point person at the school on boundary issues. "We recognize we're really limited in what the options are."
At the same time PPS closed Tubman, it also mothballed several additional buildings. But PPS officials say none of them would work for ACCESS. Several are small, with fewer than half the classrooms ACCESS desires. Others have long-term leases with community partners.
Only one is currently unused. That's Smith Elementary School in Southwest Portland, but PPS says it requires $3 million in repairs.
Scott Bailey, a member of the school board who's shepherding the process of redrawing school boundaries and relocating programs, declined to comment on the logic of promoting a "right of return" policy at Tubman while potentially displacing a new wave of black students.
"As a board," he says, "we haven't talked about it."
At least one of his colleagues, Amy Kohnstamm, is persuaded it doesn't make much sense.
For Lydia Gray-Holifield, a mother of a girl at Kairos, the debate over the school's future is personal. She lives across the street from the Humboldt building.
"It would be a tragedy for my family," she says. "This is the building we prayed for."