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Lisa Loving The Skanner News
Published: 24 January 2013

Students from around the city last May marched on the Portland Public Schools office, where they blockaded the district office in protest against $25.7 million in cuts. The previous week the school board had voted to close two schools.

Parents are planning a picket line and rally Saturday at noon at Jefferson High School in advance of yet another contentious community meeting about proposed school closures in the Jefferson cluster.

Portland Public School District officials this month released a series of proposed options for "balancing enrollment" in the North and Northeast Portland schools that include closing down Woodlawn Elementary or possibly Vernon Elementary, merging them with Ockley Green K-8, pulling the Sabin Access program out of that school and dropping it into King Elementary, and more.

The kicker: After an "enrollment balancing" process that has lasted for months, parents were only given notice that the schools might be closed last week, and now the decision is on a fast-track for a board vote in February.

Angry parents are calling for a district-wide enrollment balancing process – rather than only focusing on Portland's traditional Black neighborhoods -- and an end to the transfer policy that has pitted Jefferson cluster schools against more desirable small schools in other parts of town – all of which benefit from the "white flight" of Jefferson families.

"We would like the PPS to make a district-wide sustainable, equitable strategic plan before they start messing with the Jefferson cluster again because they're constantly fiddling with this cluster," said Vernon parent Janet Strong.

"I do know that schools outside our cluster benefit when our students transfer out to them, there are other low-enrolled schools in the district but they are in desirable neighborhoods," Strong said. "The money follows the kids. The schools are funded based on the number of students they have."

Parents are demanding that the district slow down or stop its process and give schools more time to figure out solutions to their low-enrollment.

"They produced six scenarios a few months ago, and on Jan. 14 they came up with two further scenarios that involve school closures," Strong said.

"We feel like the process took a long time but the school closures didn't come up until the final hour."

District Response

The district says that officials have been looking at enrollment across the district, something that North and Northeast parents dispute.

"Strong schools depend on excellent teachers, great leaders, creative community partnerships and committed parents," the Portland school district's proposal says. "They also need enough students to garner enough teachers to offer a well-rounded academic program that prepares students for a successful future.

"Portland Public Schools has been working across the school district to balance enrollment to provide stable and sustainable conditions that better support learning."

Nevertheless, a letter drafted last week by Woodlawn parents and sent to the Portland Public Schools management reads exactly like letters sent one year ago by parents at Humboldt Elementary and the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy, which was fast-tracked for closure even though it was the only science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school in the state focusing on girls of color.

"Our school community wants more time to turn things around," the Woodlawn PTA pleads in its letter. "We have a good momentum going here. The Oregon Department of Education has designated us a Priority School. We hope to have the time to benefit from that designation."

The level of outrage last year over the quick closure of Tubman drew in local lawmakers and city commissioners as well as corporate leaders in the Portland metro area, all of whom literally begged the Portland Public Schools Board not to shutter the school. Political leaders predicted that the district's abandonment of the all-girl STEM school would impact the economy in the long run.

Despite promises of money, mentorships and unprecedented support from the corporate sector, the board voted to shutter the school anyway, with the lone "no" vote cast by Board Chair Martin Gonzales.

Meanwhile, Oregon Schools Czar Rudy Crew is traveling the state talking about how to create more STEM education opportunities.

Trust Issue

Last week nearly 200 parents and community members came to a parent meeting at Woodlawn to talk about what they can do to keep their school open.  

Woodlawn parent Rachael Banks cites the Portland schools' new Equity Policy in calling for a more thorough look at how transfer policies are hurting the schools that keep landing on the chopping block.

"The district needs to take a comprehensive approach to enrollment balancing, especially the transfer policy and the role it plays in under-enrolled schools," Banks says.

"This can't be a piecemeal approach where you're shutting down schools one at a time."

Banks says that another issue that comes up is trust – and that the district has acknowledged they have a trust issue with parents in the Jefferson cluster.

"They need to have courage to be able to fight the status quo and do something about it --it's a bigger issue and it needs a bigger solution," Banks said.

"That's what we really want – an overall district-wide strategic plan to fix, stabilize and make all the schools equitable," Strong said. "We feel like what they're doing in the Jefferson Cluster is another short term solution."

The Jefferson Cluster Feedback forum is Saturday, Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. at Jefferson High School, 5210 N Kerby. Picketing and rally begin at noon.


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