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Bond may not bring top green schools

by: COURTESY OF GARY WILSON - Rosa Parks School was designed as a model green building, but student test scores haven's matched its LEED Gold rating.  Ten years ago, Shane Endicott took his wife and two young sons to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to see what great schools look like.

That public education system — known as one of the best in the world — was rebuilt by residents from scratch, brick by brick, after World War II, when they decided to make children and their education their most important priority.

“They have an economy built on their intellectual capital,” says Endicott, a North Portland resident and executive director of the ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Street. “Portland’s soil is 10 times richer than Reggio Emilia is — we could blow them out of the water.”

In fact, Endicott served on Portland Public Schools’ long-range facilities advisory committee to try to come up with a vision to do just that. The committee laid the ground work for the $482 million construction bond measure voters will consider Nov. 6.

Endicott is in full support of the bond. He just thinks the capital plan could fall short of its sustainability potential, and hopes the community will step up to remedy that.

“Portland wants to be the leader in sustainability,” he says, but in the bond-funded plans to rebuild four schools, “we’re lowering the bar.” Endicott is referring to the fact that PPS may seek LEED Silver certification or equivalent when it rebuilds Roosevelt, Grant and Franklin high schools and Faubion K-8, if the bond is approved.

LEED Silver is one step below LEED Gold, the certification the district reached when it built North Portland’s Rosa Parks School in 2006.  

Some Portland-area school districts have set their sights higher. Vernonia’s new K-12 school building is set to receive LEED Platinum, the highest ranking. The new Sandy High School is seeking LEED Gold.

Endicott says Portland must aim higher. “Why take something out there and ask Portlanders — who embody this ethos around sustainability — and then take our public schools to the lowest threshold?”

Plans could change

Jim Owens, PPS’ director of capital operations, says the jury’s still out on that part of the bond development.

The long-range facilities advisory group had talked about a silver standard or equivalent, he says, but “we could still end up at a higher level, like gold.”

Owens points out that a new citizen group — comprised of school community members, parents, teachers and others, will begin meeting in November to develop the “educational specifications” for each of the four schools to be rebuilt. If the bond doesn’t pass, those “ed specs” will be saved for future use.

The group will spend six months on the work, discussing the physical characteristics of the buildings as well as options for LEED certification.

Owens says the thinking about the silver ranking is that it isn’t the bottom tier and yet it’s not as expensive as gold. “We’re not trying to do something at the very top because of cost,” he says.

No matter what label it’s given, sustainable design and energy-efficient features will still play a major role in what Owens calls the “life cycle” of the school building projects — from planning and design to construction and maintenance for at least 80 years, or as long as the buildings are in use.

“What’s important about applying sustainable concepts is its contribution to a modern learning environment,” Owens says.

New school, lower test scores

When it comes to building design, many have wondered about a building’s impact on student learning.

PPS leaders and bond campaign volunteers say there have been numerous studies to show the benefits of better lighting, better equipment, better air flow and smarter design.

No one, however, has used Rosa Parks as a case study. Perhaps that’s because in the past six years since the building was finished, the school’s progress as measured by test scores doesn’t show any improvement — in fact it’s gone in the opposite direction.

To be sure, test scores are hardly a full picture of a school’s progress. Many times they’re misleading: the federal government has raised the bar for achievement each year, making it impossible for schools to catch up.

That said, there’s been a drastic drop in test scores between 2006 — Rosa Parks’ first year of existence — and last year.

A quick snapshot: 55 percent of third-graders met their reading benchmarks in 2006, but that declined steadily and dropped to 31 percent last year. Fourth-grade reading tests showed the largest drop: from 71 percent meeting benchmark in 2006 down to 21 percent last year. And fifth-grade reading scores sunk from 50 percent to 16 percent last year.

Math scores showed a parallel trend.

Bond campaign volunteer Nancy Hamilton, a longtime school design guru and a consultant in the running for a contract for the bond work, chalks it up to the fact that Rosa Parks has a transient population of students who are often forced to move, which affects their achievement. Ninety-five percent of the students receive free- or reduced-price meals and one-third speak English as a second language.

Integrating design with learning

Endicott says it’s not the demographics, but a missed opportunity by the district during construction and design to fully engage the school community, even though the students came from different schools.

He was part of an ad hoc group of community members who met for another month after the long-range facilities group disbanded. They drew up an “educational impact statement” for the bond and presented it to the board. It proposed that the district include a set of questions in the bidding process for all bond work, asking contractors to describe the learning opportunities they’d provide for students while projects are under way.

That could entail giving building tours to teachers and students during construction, visiting the classroom to discuss different concepts as they apply to math or science, or offering paid or volunteer internships to high school students, in everything from construction and design to finance and maintenance.

The ad hoc group also wants teachers to use the bond work to inform their curriculum in their classes and in the field, such as having media students document the building process to create a living history of it.

If students are involved intimately in the process, Endicott says, they’ll take ownership of it. And they’ll come back after they graduate to give back.

“The core of equity is ownership,” Endicott says. “It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is. If you have ownership of what happens around you, that’s equity. If it’s happening to you, you don’t own it. If it’s happening with you, you do.”