Sara Rose Cagle and Alison Ruland have a lot in common.
Sara Rose is 13; Alison just turned 14. Both attend eighth grade in Portland Public Schools. Both live near Mount Tabor in prewar bungalows with their mothers, fathers and siblings.
Vivacious and inquisitive, the teenage girls even look alike. They have long, curly brown hair and wear T-shirts or tank tops with bulky sweaters or jackets, jeans and Vans skater shoes. Sara Rose loves the German band Tokio Hotel, The Vampire Diaries television show, and a popular series of books about vampires called “Marked.” Alison loves Beyoncé, The Office and the “Pretty Little Liars” novels.
Above-average students, Sara Rose and Alison both plan to go to college. But before they can even think about college, they face high school, and PPS is preparing them for next year’s transition to ninth grade quite differently.
Sara Rose attends Hosford Middle School, and Alison attends Bridger K-8 School.
The contrasts between the two schools are striking. Hosford offers ceramics and beginning and advanced art; Bridger offers no art classes at all. Hosford offers beginning, intermediate and advanced band, jazz band and string orchestra every weekday; Bridger students have only one music elective—a drumming class for about 50 minutes a week. Hosford has drama class; Bridger offers it only to sixth graders a few days a week. Hosford offers multiple levels of both Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, with the opportunity to earn high-school credits. Bridger offers one level of Spanish, without the possibility of earning high-school credits.
Students at Hosford can take algebra and geometry, which are high-school-level courses, and can earn high-school credits in math. At Bridger, there is no geometry. There is algebra, but it is taught by a teacher who also works at another school every day, which means she is available for only 10 minutes before class and during lunch to answer students’ questions.
At Hosford, students receive almost two hours of physical education each week, according to the district. At Bridger, students get 45 minutes a week. At Hosford, students have access to five 45-minute periods of technology instruction a week. At Bridger, they get one period. At Hosford, the average student gets 7 1/2 hours of language arts each week. At Bridger, 4 1/2.
At Hosford, students have lockers. Students at Bridger have none.
The inequity also extends to the most basic components of both schools: their bell schedules. Because the school district can’t afford to send two sets of buses to Bridger, eight grade students like Alison arrive at and leave school at the same time as first graders. Alison is, therefore, in school 15 fewer minutes a day than Sara Rose—a difference that adds up over a year to a full day of instructional time in a school district famous (or infamous) for its short school years.
Hosford and Bridger stand nearly side-by-side in the same city and school district—they’re only about three miles apart.
SCHOOL HAZE: Rita Moore, who ran for Portland School Board in May 2009, is angry about school inequities.
“It is a very long three miles,” says Rita Moore, a parent who ran unsuccessfully for the Portland School Board in 2009. “It makes me angry every time I see these things. But what makes me angrier is that we all know this. We have known this, and it continues to happen.”
At 9:10 on a recent Monday morning, Sara Rose entered Hosford with six minutes until her first class. The hallways were like human pinball machines with young teenagers bouncing from the walls, their voices echoing through the corridors.
Sara Rose wore a tank top and skinny jeans with a nubby sweater that stretched almost to her knees. On one foot, she wore a brace, having recently sprained a toe while playing soccer in the street outside her house.
Before her first class that Monday, Sara Rose stopped at her second-floor locker to stash a snack, in this case a bag of trail mix. Then she headed back to the first floor. There were still almost four minutes until the first bell was to ring, and Sara Rose was as concerned about socializing as she was about her upcoming test in Spanish.
More than just a place to put a jacket on a cold day, lockers at Hosford form the focus of students’ social orbit. They’re where Sara Rose knows she can find her friends in the brief four minutes of passing time between classes—and before and after school. “I love my locker, because, like, people meet each other at their lockers,” Sara Rose says. “That’s how they know where to go to find each other.”
Sara Rose’s first class was an advisory period, a 10-minute session in which she listened to the day’s announcements. On a typical day, that could include news of a school holiday or an upcoming dance. (Hosford has two or three dances a year on Fridays after school, with DJs. “The music is different, but the hormones are the same,” says one middle-school teacher in Portland of the time-honored tradition.)
In the course of her day, like every day, Sara Rose has two electives or enrichment classes. At Hosford, she could have chosen anything from Mandarin Chinese to band to ceramics to visual arts. Sara Rose chose Spanish and computers this semester; she’ll take Spanish and P.E. in the second half of the year. She also joined the yearbook club, which meets before school, and the eighth-grade basketball team, which plays on weekends and after school through Portland Parks Recreation.
“I love Hosford,” Sara Rose says. “It’s just a really good school. The teachers are awesome.”
Her mother doesn’t disagree: “Hosford is a hidden jewel of Portland,” says Julie Poust, Sara Rose’s mom.
Alison is also enthusiastic about her school, which was an elementary until it starting adding grades to become a K-8 in 2008. “I really like it,” she says while walking to her school bus on a recent Thursday morning. “I think it’s awesome we can be around the little kids.”
When Alison arrived at Bridger around 9 am that same day, she walked into a building that had been designed for children much smaller than she is. There are no lockers in which to stash her backpack, because they would cost too much to install and the principal suspects the hallways are too narrow anyway. “Without lockers it’s difficult,” says Alison, who has to carry her books and jacket from class to class throughout the day.
That’s not what matters most to her about not having a locker. Alison says she would like the social aspect of chatting with friends and mixing with different students in the halls. Because Bridger also has elementary-school classes that lack defined periods, there are no bells to signal the end of classes for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Those students shuffle between classes quickly and quietly when their teachers tell them to; there is no official passing time between periods, as there is at traditional middle schools.
“I think it would be fun, like, you know, the visiting aspect of it,” Alison says of the possibility of having a locker.
The only choice in classes Alison had this year was whether she wanted to take Spanish or study hall, which Bridger calls “academic support.” The school set the rest of her schedule, which includes one period at the end of the day for drumming, health, P.E. and computers—the subjects rotate from day to day. “If we had art at Bridger it would be a lot more fun,” Alison says. “When you’re stuck with the same electives that you didn’t even get to choose, it gets old. You’re like, ‘I wish I could have done something, you know, that deals with the environment. Or more tech.’ Like, some schools have a full year of tech. We would like to have an art teacher, but there’s not space or the funding for it, which is a big problem.”
In 2007 and 2008, Bridger did not meet federal testing standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, which means, according to the government, Bridger is a failing school.
Alison says she can’t remember how she scored on her seventh-grade state assessment tests. They’re not of great consequence to her. Other things are more pressing. “Sometimes friends who go to Mount Tabor [Middle School] will say, ‘Oh, we had such a good band class today,'” Alison says. “‘We got to go play in a concert.’ ‘We got to go be in a parade.’ Because they have actual instruments—not just drums.… You can’t really carry around those big drums. Then it makes me kind of jealous. It’s like, ‘You guys have art and you have a band and you have a whole year of tech and all this different stuff that we don’t have.’ I do wish we had more.”
Her parents are aware of her school’s limitations.
“As a parent,” Alison’s father, Mike Ruland, says, “you want your kid to have the richest education possible.”
Is it unfair? “Absolutely,” he says.
What explains the differences between Hosford and Bridger?
The answer has less to do with the schools’ grade-level configurations and everything to do with their enrollment numbers. So, who sets those numbers? A combination of factors are at play.
Schools like Hosford and Bridger draw students from their immediate neighborhood. The district creates the boundaries, and if families live within those boundaries, their children are guaranteed placement at those schools. A certain number of students are allowed to transfer out of their neighborhood schools through a lottery, but many schools, like Hosford, are full and not accepting transfer students.
This year, Hosford has 550 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Bridger has only 73 students in the middle-school grades, down from 84 just last year.
With only 73 middle-school students, Bridger got enough money from the district for four teachers who must teach math, social studies, language arts and science not only to three different grades but also to students with wide-ranging abilities. Bridger’s principal, Tina Daily, recognizes her school can’t offer a program as rich as those at other schools in the district.
“We will never compete with a large K-8,” Daily says. “We will never compete with a large middle school.”
PPS administrators realize this system is unsustainable. They recently decided schools with middle-school grades need at least 160 students in grades 6-8 to offer the full range of courses the district thinks those students need, says Sara Allan, the numbers guru at PPS. The district’s solution is to hope the kindergarten classes, which have grown in recent years, keep the kids they’ve attracted at Bridger until eighth grade. For now, they’ve put Bridger on a watch list of schools administrators worry about.
This enrollment conundrum infuriates parents like Rita Moore, the activist who ran for School Board in May hoping to address the inequality across the middle grades. PPS established the small K-8s just a few years ago. The idea at the time was to make them small on purpose.
“You can’t use the crisis you created as the reason for the crisis,” Moore says.
Superintendent Carole Smith knows about the disparities between K-8s and middle schools in the district. When she was hired in 2007, she pledged to address them. She hasn’t entirely ignored the problem. Responding to widespread criticism of the lack of functioning libraries in some schools with middle grades, Smith restructured the district’s funding to pay for librarians and books at all of those schools, for example.
And this year, for the first time, the district is requiring schools with sixth, seventh and eighth grades to offer a bare minimum of academic classes and electives. Under these program requirements for the 2009-2010 school year, all students in the sixth through eighth grades must get an average of 90 minutes a week of physical education.
Despite this mandate, half the district’s K-8s don’t meet the minimum 90-minute requirement. All but one of the middle schools do.
It’s a significant failing, but the school district faces other urgent matters. By January, the School Board will vote to close possibly two or three neighborhood high schools. The board will have set in motion plans to consolidate their programs on other campuses. And perhaps as early as May, voters in Portland will be asked to consider a $1 billion bond issue to build new school facilities, cementing in place the new high-school configurations and the middle-school programs—even if there is slim evidence by then to show they’re working.
Smith says the district remains focused on the middle schools and K-8s, even if the public discussion centers on high schools. She calls the battle for school quality one that’s taking place “on all fronts.” Yet she doesn’t deny the scope of the challenge. “We’re not at the end point,” she says.
No one would suggest that because some kids lack lockers, they will do poorly in life. An extra 30 minutes of P.E. a week does not magically transform a student.
But the story of PPS’s inequity is not a story just about student outcomes, which are influenced by a number of factors schools don’t control and can be measured in a variety of ways, including any number of standardized tests.
This is a story about two teenagers who, based only on the neighborhoods where their parents choose to live, go to schools with vastly different resources and, as a result, very different programs. All this in the same city and school district.
“I think schools should be able to have their own personalities,” says Moore. “But there have to be parameters. There has to be a certain amount of minimum standards in place, and it has to include enrichment, because we’re talking about children. It’s not by accident that the families with the most resources go through hell and back to get their children P.E., art and music.”
VICKI PHILLIPS PHOTO: Michael Rubenstein
Until the 1960s, all neighborhood children in Portland Public Schools attended what are sometimes referred to as “ele-middle” schools, buildings with kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
That changed in the 1970s, when Portland and other urban school districts created middle schools. That move was prompted in part by the idea that children between the ages of 11 and 14 had unique needs driven by their changing intellectual and physical characteristics.
The other part had to do with economics. By clustering larger groups of adolescents together, school districts could achieve efficiencies even while delivering services to a wide range of kids, including those with learning disabilities or English-language deficiencies or kids with very high test scores.
Middle schools could also offer more electives and, for the first time, after-school sports. “The middle-school program responds to the wide range of individual differences and special needs of early adolescents,” reads a 1989 report from then-Superintendent Matthew Prophet. “The middle-school curriculum balances continued growth in basic skills with exploratory experiences.”
Third, middle schools served to integrate children whose neighborhood elementary schools reflected sharper racial and class divisions.
By the time Vicki Phillips arrived as superintendent in Portland in 2004, there were both pockets of excellence in the school district and failing schools. The School Board tasked Phillips with closing the “achievement gap.” She was also supposed to close schools to respond to declining enrollment.
Only months into her tenure, Phillips set about doing both things at once. She closed low-performing middle schools. And to save money, she also closed some small elementary schools. In their place, she instituted new K-8s, the same “ele-middles” Portland abandoned in the 1970s.
Though there is no empirical evidence K-8s are better than middle schools, Phillips called them “superior” in public presentations to advance her plan, and the School Board for the most part bought it. In a series of contentious 4-3 splits, they voted to support Phillips, who then quickly set out to merge schools. Phillips, who left PPS in 2007 for a job with the Gates Foundation, promised the change would actually increase students’ access to electives.
Five years later, few people defend Phillips’ haste.
“The whole thing wasn’t thought through,” says K.D. Parman, a George Middle School teacher, repeating a common criticism of Phillips. “Teachers and administrators are doing the best they can with what they have, but people were promised a lot of things they never got.”
If every school in Portland Public Schools were placed on a spectrum, Hosford and Bridger would not appear on either end. By reputation and measurable qualities like test scores, the Southeast Portland schools are neither the best nor the worst in Portland. Their programs are neither the richest nor the poorest.
Under an Oregon public records request, WW asked for the master schedules of all PPS schools with sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The variety of programs is staggering; no two schools look alike. Here are the differences we found:
in Southwest Portland, students have 342 minutes of instruction a day.
in Kenton, students get 320 minutes a day of instruction. That means students get two hours a week less instruction than students at Jackson. Over the course of a school year, that’s equivalent to two fewer weeks of school.
in Southwest offers high-school credits in Spanish, French and Chinese.
in Mount Scott-Arleta offers no instruction in world languages at all.
in Hosford-Abernethy offers introductory visual arts, ceramics and advanced art courses—plus computers, advanced computers and a class called “Lego Physics.”
in Arbor Lodge says it focuses on arts and technology. It offers no stand-alone art or technology courses, but teachers are supposed to integrate those subjects into the core curriculum.
in Southwest offers choir, concert band, cadet band, French, Spanish, art, journalism and technology classes.
in Northeast offers an elective called “Puzzles.” Students learn Sudoku.
in Southeast offers concert band, jazz band and two classes to learn marimba—plus art, shop and Spanish. It’s one of two middle schools in PPS that still offer shop.
in North Portland, the year is divided into trimesters. One period a day is devoted to electives for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Only two teachers lead electives—the P.E. and technology teachers. To make trimesters work, a guidance counselor must teach a third elective, which is listed as “other” on the school’s master schedule. Students’ report cards will show they get 45 minutes of “counseling” every day instead of “other.”
Correction: The location for Clarendon-Portsmouth K-8 School was misidentified; it is in North Portland. WW regrets the error.