Plans crop up around city for quasischools during proposed hiatus

They sat in church pews and in semicircles on the carpeted church floor. Suddenly, they became de facto school board members and school principals.

What should we pay our teachers? Do we have to pay Social Security? What about health benefits? Liability insurance?

What should our teachers teach? Where do we get the materials they need?

Close to 100 parents of students at Glencoe Elementary School in Southeast Portland had gathered at Mount Tabor Presbyterian Church to talk about educating their elementary school children this spring. Their mission was to decide how to give them what the Portland school district apparently will not: a complete school year.

'That's what we do,' said parent Jeanine Sullivan. 'We take care of our kids.'

Similar what-can-we-do parent discussions have sprouted in the last couple of weeks throughout Portland Ñ most often in Portland's middle-class or upper middle-class neighborhoods.

With a mixture of frustration, anger and ambition, the parents are trying to start impromptu private 'schools' to operate in the month after the Portland school district year is scheduled to end in mid-May Ñ four weeks early because of district budget cuts.

The parent groups have focused on individual schools, or sometimes specific grades or classrooms in individual schools. They've tried to secure churches or other community group buildings for space. And in many cases, they're trying to contract with Portland district teachers Ñ who would be paid by the parents Ñ to teach the classes.

'Frankly, this state's decided to leave all children behind (in their education),' said Anita Tabb, a mother of a Lincoln High school sophomore, who is helping to arrange chemistry and math classes taught by Lincoln teachers. 'And I'll be damned if they're going to leave mine behind.'

'As parents, we cannot accept the fact that our children are not being educated,' said Thompson Morrison, a Glencoe parent who helped organize that community of parents. 'So we have to do what we can.'

The efforts aren't universally praised.

Some Portland teachers and others question the fairness of students in richer neighborhoods getting a chance to attend the special schools, while students in most poor neighborhoods won't have the same opportunities.

And, even within some neighborhoods Ñ especially on Portland's west side, according to at least one critic Ñ some students and families are being excluded from the impromptu private schools.

'I am finding that in more affluent neighborhoods Ñ and particularly, but not exclusively, on the west side Ñ activist parents are É making agreements with teachers and handpicking who will be in those classes,' said Janet Bauer, the coordinator of CitySchool, a special school for children during the furlough that is being coordinated by the Mt. Scott Learning Centers. 'It does not seem like it's being constructive to the community as a whole. É There's a sense that the fabric of the community is sort of breaking down.'

But Bauer also praised some of the efforts Ñ including those of the Glencoe parents, who are hoping to have parents subsidize the fee for their monthlong school for Glencoe parents who can't afford it.

'That is visionary,' Bauer said.

School buildings unavailable

Portland school district officials declined requests by some of the parent groups to lease school buildings during the furlough Ñ in part because of concerns that only some buildings might be open, in neighborhoods where parents could afford to lease them, said school district spokeswoman Brenda Gustafson.

District officials don't oppose the furlough schools, she said. 'Any time you can help a child to maintain their education, the district would be supportive,' Gustafson said.

But district officials are working with other community agencies to help a wider group of students during the furlough.

'We have an obligation to every student in our district Ñ not just a few,' she said.

None of the organizers of the furlough schools have solidified their plans. And there remain a host of questions and potential obstacles.

A Portland teachers strike, which could come as early as March 10, would derail the plans. Teachers on strike duty could not teach for anyone during a strike. And a strike that was settled by the end of April or in early May, for instance, might negate the need for the schools; it could lead to regular school resuming for the rest of the school year.

Many teachers considering whether to participate in the schools worry about liability coverage against lawsuits that the school district and the teachers' union provides for them during the regular school year. Some parents hope the liability insurance coverage of the churches where they hope to hold classes Ñ or a rider that could be added to the churches' insurance Ñ could cover teachers. But most parent groups aren't certain of that yet.

Parents and teachers also wonder whether they can use the regular school curriculum or educational materials from their classrooms.

Ann Nice, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said the union would not tell teachers what they can do during the furlough and has no official position on whether teachers should teach at the schools. 'These circumstances are kind of new,' she said, adding that 'some teachers don't know what to say' when parents approach them about the schools.

Sue Wilcox, a fifth-grade teacher at Northeast Portland's Alameda Elementary, has decided to teach her students during the furlough Ñ but is doing it on the condition that the students and parents take the classes seriously, that she would teach her standard curriculum and that all her students could participate. 'I'm really not interested in being a private teacher for a group of elite parents who can pay me to teach their kids,' she said.

Money is an issue

For parents, money still remains the largest question. Until they know how many parents might be interested, the parent groups don't know what the cost per family might be Ñ and leaders of many of the groups aren't sure what they should offer the teachers in pay.

Debbie Asakawa, a mother of a fifth-grader at Southwest Portland's Bridlemile Elementary School, said parents organizing a furlough school for the school's fifth-graders are planning to ask parents for $12 to $17 per day for a five-hour-a-day, three-day-a-week school.

Like parents at Glencoe, Bridlemile parents would help pay for Bridlemile families who could not afford the fee, Asakawa said.

'Most of the parents who talked to me said they would only participate if all the kids could,' she said.

But even such subsidized systems don't help students attending schools in Portland's poorer neighborhoods.

'I'm not criticizing the parents,' Nice said of the private efforts. 'But they can afford to go ahead and really have their children not lose any education. But what about those areas Ñ and there are many more of those areas in the city Ñ where that's not an option?'

It's the sort of equity question that has badgered the Portland school district Ñ like most school districts Ñ for years. And it continues to bother at least some of the parents who are working to extend the school year for their own children.

Melanie Quinn, a Beaverton teacher who has a child in Wilcox's Alameda class, said Alameda parents plan to help poorer Alameda parents pay the fee.

Still, she said: 'There's a real sadness and almost a guilt on my part that we're doing this for our children, and I wish we could do this for the whole city. But you also want to take care of your child. And your child needs a whole year of school.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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