District's complicated options stir public anger, resentment

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Parents and community members packed into the Beach K-8 School gymnasium to comment on the different strategies for reorganizing the Jefferson cluster schools.North Portland parent Bryn Dearborn has witnessed the changes to Jefferson High School during the past decade and is now seeing his own neighborhood school, Beach K-8, undergo the same dizzying process.

He’d just as soon Portland Public Schools leave them alone.

“We feel fine as we are,” says Dearborn, who has a fourth grader and kindergartener at Beach, as well as a 2-year-old at home. “Our middle school has been getting stronger every year. We’re getting crowded; people have been busting their asses to build a good middle school, but now they’re saying that’s just going to all go away.”

PPS’ enrollment balancing process for nine Jefferson cluster schools, now under way, is set to wrap up by January or February and be implemented next fall.

Last week, PPS put six options on the table, all as complicated as a game of chess.

Dearborn and about 200 other parents who attended the Nov. 13 “Jefferson PK-8 Enrollment Balancing Cross-Cluster Forum” forum had major gripes about the process. Since the first few public meetings in July, he said, “people have been begging” to see the options, and now “there’s hardly any time to react.”

“The six options are not even very well defined,” adds Dearborn, who is the PTA president. “Why we needed five months to come up with these options is beyond me.”

Another parent who attended left this comment among the 13 pages of bullet-point feedback: “I want you to know I have four children in PPS and wholeheartedly stand up for every education initiative or ballot measure that comes my way. BUT, if you are seriously considering changing some K-8 back to K-5 (only 5 years later); I have lost faith in administration. What an absolute WASTE of time and money, when all we hear is that there is NO MONEY to waste.”

Still another parent had this question: “We understand that there are problems with our cluster, but shouldn’t we be focusing on the schools where the problems are occurring?”

In other words, why does school size matter so much to PPS?

Even Rudy Crew, Oregon’s new chief education officer, has thoughts on the impact of school size.

“In my judgment school size is much less a determinant value than instruction,” he wrote in a March 2010 opinion piece in the New York Times. “Focusing on school size is simply looking at a big picture through a very small lens and missing the real opportunity to address the larger shifts needed in our public education system to recognize, accept, and respond to the challenges of declining revenues and student enrollment.”

Large schools can offer a wide range of programs, Crew noted, but “the value and emphasis should be placed on the way schools are organized and with effective teachers who have content knowledge,” he wrote. “We need to deliver instruction in exciting, compelling and diverse ways.”

Confusing changes

PPS spokesman Matt Shelby explains the district’s rationalization like this: “Money follows students. So, more students in a school equals more money, which equals more teachers, which equals more offerings, especially at middle grades.”

If schools are too small, he says, they don’t get enough teachers to offer a strong program.

That was the same reasoning used two years ago during the district’s redesign of the high schools, which closed the Marshall Campus and reinvented Jefferson as a districtwide magnet.

Dearborn, the Beach parent, says he doesn’t see why the term “Jefferson cluster” still exists, when Jefferson is no longer a comprehensive school like Madison or Grant. Beach should be part of the Roosevelt cluster, he says.

Shelby admits enrollment balancing is a tough conversation to have when people differ on basic ideas about schools: “How small is too small, how large is too large? And what constitutes a ‘strong program?’ Is it the number of subjects, quality of teaching, ‘feel’ of the school?”

The six potential plans for change among the Jefferson cluster schools include a mix of closures, consolidations, grade reconfigurations and boundary changes. The schools range from tiny (Ockley Green’s 245 students) to large (Beach’s 646 students).

To make things more confusing, the recently closed Tubman campus is back in the mix (possibly as a middle school) and the recently closed Humboldt building is out of the mix (under consideration for lease as an early-learning site).

PPS held two more public meetings this week. For the details on the options:

A long process

Surrounding school districts have broad ranges of grade schools.

Hillsboro K-6 schools range from 300 to 600 students, and new school buildings are built to a target capacity of 600.

Beaverton schools range from 300 to 800; new schools are built for 750, the number set by their long-range facilities plan.

“What we try to do with our staffing formula is (seek) equity, find a balance,” says Maureen Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Beaverton district. “We can do staffing based on enrollment, no matter what their size.”

Smaller schools have challenges, Wheeler says, but those schools appeal to many for the more personal environment.

Brian Horn, principal at Beaverton’s Cedar Mill Elementary, says staffing his school of 265 students has been a challenge, but his parents, volunteers, teachers and staff have found ways to make it successful. The school blends second- and third-grade classrooms, and fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, flipping curriculum and grouping kids within classrooms to make it work.

A few years ago, Horn says, there was a plan to close Cedar Mill and the two other small schools in the district, but after a cost-savings analysis, the plan saved just a couple hundred thousand dollars and wasn’t worth it.

Horn thinks it was a wise decision, because it’s nearly impossible to reopen a school once it’s been closed. Enrollment projections show the neighborhood around the school is growing. Boundary changes happen as needed every few years in the district, but they’re always difficult, Horn says.

“There’s emotions attached to your neighborhood school; people can be very passionate,” he says. “It’s just something you don’t do at the drop of a hat. The community would have to be involved; it’s a year-long process.”

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