Parents at Chief Joseph Elementary School in North Portland don’t want their school to close or merge. Yet five of the six options on the table would have their school doing so.

The school board on Monday night was set to get its first look at which two of the six options will move forward, as recommended by PPS staff.

At the same time, Chief Joseph parents will present the results of their survey, which show their desire to keep it as a neighborhood school.

It’s just the beginning of the controversy sure to come as district leaders move forward with their “Jefferson cluster enrollment balancing process,” an effort to right-size too-large and too-small schools so each school can have a strong academic program.

The Chief Joseph survey, conducted Dec. 7 to 11 via web and paper copies in Spanish and English, garnered 199 responses.

The school enrolls 481 students, capturing two-thirds of its neighborhood students. Two-thirds of the school population is white, with about 10 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic, five percent Asian and a mix of other races. Just under half are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals.

The survey found:

* When given a choice of five school configurations, nearly 70 percent of parents wanted to keep their current K-5 model, feeding to a middle school.

* Half of the parents surveyed said they’d consider removing their child from a newly assigned neighborhood school within the cluster if Chief Joseph closes. They said they’d consider transferring their children to a different neighborhood school outside the cluster, enroll in a charter or private school, or move from the district entirely.

* Chief Joseph parents prefer a middle school model as opposed to a K-8 or K-5 feeding a K-8 school model for their children. Currently, the Jefferson Cluster is the only cluster in the district which does not offer a middle school option to students graduating from a K-5 elementary.

“A school is the town square in a neighborhood,” said Jeffrey Johnson, parent of a first grader at Chief Joseph. “It’s a place where people come together as a community so to disrupt that would be devastating to a lot of families.”

Parent leaders say Chief Joseph is the only K-5 school in the cluster, is meeting enrollment targets, and has steadily increasing test scores.

The school board is set to consider the final two options for Chief Joseph and the rest of the Jefferson cluster at their Monday evening board meeting.

Community members weighed in the options at three public forums and online in December. The changes include boundary changes, grade reconfigurations, program changes, consolidations and closures.

“We’re going back and forth,” Judy Brennan, director of the enrollment and transfer office, told the Tribune this week. “It’s not an easy puzzle.”

The schools involved include Beach, Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, Chief Joseph, Faubion, King, Ockley Green, Vernon, Woodlawn and ACCESS, the small alternative school for highly gifted students that is currently based at Sabin. The recently closed Harriet Tubman building may also come into play.

District leaders say each school must have enough students and teachers to offer a strong program.

The board will take public input on the options and Supt. Carole Smith will make her recommendation to the school board before the board's expected vote in February.

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School choice

Also this month, families are gearing up for the school choice lotteries. The high school lottery is open Feb. 1 to Feb. 22; the elementary/middle school lottery is open Feb. 8 to March 15.

It won’t be the large event it has historically been, however.

Last year the district clamped down on transfers at the high school level to encourage neighborhood school growth, and as a result five high schools didn’t accept any transfers due to limited space.

That's a far cry from the year before, when every high school took in transfers, and 528 of the 818 who applied for one were accepted.

At the elementary and K-8 level, eight schools had no space for transfers in 2011; four more joined the list in 2012.

This year Brennan expects the process to look about the same. “It does feel like a pretty mature system,” she says.

Benson keeps cap on

Most of the excitement in the lottery process is with the focus-option schools, which are highly competitive.

For instance Creative Science School had 78 spots last year for 369 applicants; Buckman Arts Focus had 20 slots for 146 applicants; Sunnyside Environmental had 18 slots for 140 applicants; and Winterhaven (focusing on math, science and technology) had 71 spots for a whopping 461 students.

The focus-options “are in high demand,” Brennan admits, but “they’re not the highest priority” for the district, she says. There are no talk of making those schools larger, Brennan says: “We don’t want to do that at the cost of unstable neighborhood schools.”

At the high school level, Jefferson Middle College for Advanced Studies is in its second year as a focus-option school, but there’s not quite a waiting list yet. Last year the 195 open slots drew just 63 applicants.

On the flip side, Benson Polytechnic High School had 280 openings last year for 403 applicants.

Some supporters say that Benson — one of the district’s highest-performing schools — should be allowed to serve more students.

Brennan doesn’t see that in the cards either. The cap won’t be raised this year, lest that affect enrollment at the comprehensive schools, she says.

There are two longer-term options. The school has long grappled with students who come unprepared or uninterested in the rigorous vocational studies. Adding admissions criteria, such as an interview or essay, would help the school select the best fit of students for the programs.

“Benson would like us to continue looking at (admissions) criteria,” Brennan says.

Another thought is to admit students to Benson by geographic area, so there’s equitable representation of the whole city.

The district’s committee on enrollment and transfer issues could look at both issues and, if they decide it’s a priority, recommend changes for the 2014 school year.

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