Meetings give parents a chance to question district process to alter boundaries

Now that the Portland Public Schools high school redesign is done, the district will take on the messy task of balancing enrollment between the lower-grade schools.

The process revisits much of the fallout from the infamous K-8 reconfiguration process of 2006, which critics said happened without enough foresight.

According to PPS Enrollment Director Judy Brennan, a third of all PPS schools are either over-enrolled or under-enrolled - a 'critical' problem that should be resolved by shifting school boundaries, adding space or changing grade configurations.

Since many Portland residents hold school boundaries as a sacred right - even buying into a neighborhood in order to attend a certain school - the district's latest process, which kicks off this week, is sure to raise some angst.

The first of six public meetings is scheduled for today, continuing through Nov. 9. The public is invited to ask questions and give input on Brennan's report from earlier this month.

That report proposes that the changes come in two waves, one to be considered by the school board in February and taking effect next school year, and the other to take effect the following year.

Specifically, Brennan cites that seven schools have enrollment that's at least 150 students below the targeted number, while 16 percent are more than 100 percent utilization, meaning there aren't enough classrooms available for teachers.

A process stalled

Among the first schools' sizes and boundaries to be studied: ACCESS Academy, Alameda Elementary School, Beaumont Middle School and Sabin, Rigler and Vernon K-8 schools.

Some changes were made this school year to address overcrowding at Alameda and Rigler, but 'permanent changes are still needed,' the report says.

A similar process stalled in January, when the district proposed changes but parents balked, saying they've had an 'inadequate timeframe' for public input and have had no representation by parents with children who are not yet in elementary school because those parents were not notified. They also said the board was using insufficient data to inform the process.

This time around, Brennan's Oct. 11 report says that over the past two weeks, 'regional administrators, principals and, in some cases, teachers and parents have been consulted to match up data with real-world experience. These discussions have allowed for a broader understanding of the degree of enrollment challenges different schools are facing.'

Any change to those schools could affect surrounding schools: Irvington, Roseway Heights and Scott K-8. Meetings would be held in those communities at a later time.

The district is recommending other immediate changes to add growth to Skyline - one of the smallest K-8 schools, with 277 students - and Sabin K-8, which has grown but 'would benefit from more stable enrollment in their middle grades program.'

Five years ago, when those Skyline and Sabin expanded from elementary to K-8 schools, students were given a guarantee transfer to East/West Sylvan Middle School and Beaumont Middle School, respectively.

The board must decide this year whether to continue that option.

Jefferson cluster, other schools on tap

The second phase of talks - for implementation by 2013 - involves low enrollment at Jefferson-area schools including Humboldt preK-8 (220 students), King preK-8 (292) and Ockley Green (270).

Other schools in the cluster are near capacity, including Faubion preK-8 (99 percent of classrooms used), Chief Joseph Elementary (95 percent used) and Woodlawn preK-8 (93 percent used).

'Because of the complexity of these interrelated issues and the unique opportunities that exist in this set of schools, we propose conducting a balancing enrollment process across the full cluster,' Brennan's report cites.

Participation from stakeholders would begin this year.

Other longer-term issues identified in the PPS report include:

• High growth is happening in pockets across the district, with a third of all elementary, middle and K-8 schools have added a full classroom this year. That's causing crowding in schools such as Harrison Park, Lent, Kelly, Llewellyn, Beverly Cleary, Laurelhurst, Scott, Astor, Chapman and Rieke.

Each of the schools would be reviewed in depth this year to identify any program changes or facility changes that would bring some relief. Boundary changes or grade reconfigurations could be considered too but wouldn't happen before 2013.

• Three middle schools - George (357 students), Gray (422) and Lane (443) have 150 fewer students than the target of 600.

A team of regional administrators, school staff and community members will start meeting to identify strategies to increase enrollment at those schools.

An equity lens

While parents may resist the changes being proposed, Brennan, in her three-page report, raises the E word that's become the district's buzzword: equity.

The district has a new racial equity policy and has created an equity department. She presents a case for change, based on the goal of greater equity in the district.

She writes:

• 'Because school boundaries have existed for many decades, they often represent historically classist and racist housing patterns. Redrawing boundary lines can provide an opportunity to improve the baseline diversity at schools. At the same time, the change process will be very emotional for parents and community members, and delving into the historical identities of neighborhoods will compound the sensitivity and complexity of any boundary change discussion. Our change process must allow time for this exploration. To the degree allowed by district policy, potential racial impact will be described in all boundary change proposals.

• Many of the schools listed as priorities educate high populations of students of color. A lack of access to rigorous programs and lack of space for effective teaching and learning are particularly harmful in these schools. However, the pace of the change process must be considerate of all the stakeholder groups involved, and, thus, may take longer than a single school year to plan and implement respectfully and effectively. As such, supplemental staff allocations and other above-formula expenditures may be required at some schools even while enrollment balancing efforts are under way.'

The upcoming public meetings are set for:

• Oct. 27, 6-7:30 p.m., Sabin PK-8 School auditorium, 4013 N.E. 18th Ave.

• Nov. 2, 6-8 p.m., Rigler K-8 School auditorium, 5401 N.E. Prescott St.

• Nov. 3, 6:30-8 p.m., Alameda Elementary School cafeteria, 2732 N.E. Fremont St.

• Nov. 7, 6-7 p.m., Vernon PK-8 School multipurpose room, 2044 N.E. Killingsworth St.

• Nov. 8, 6:30-8 p.m., Beaumont Middle School library, 4043 N.E. Fremont St.

• Nov. 9, 6:30-8 p.m., Irvington K-8 School gymnasium, 1320 N.E. Brazee St.

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