You may have heard: Portland Public Schools has boundary issues.
Some schools have enrollment areas that are too big, while others draw too few students. The enrollment imbalance means that kids at certain schools—typically those with more affluent white students—have more funding and better class offerings.
But after two full years of public meetings, solutions remain elusive. Two weeks ago, interim Superintendent Bob McKean announced he wanted to delay for a year the opening of two middle schools that are key to addressing the variations in school quality on the eastside. He blamed the delay on the district’s lead clean-up and the upcoming construction bond campaign.
Here’s how PPS got to this point—and the chances it can ever accomplish what it says it needs to do.
Weren’t the problems of uneven enrollment considered urgent in 2014?
Yes. Even then, the problems weren’t new.
They trace their origin to a move in 2006 when PPS shuttered many low-performing middle schools and moved grades six through eight to elementary schools, creating K-8 schools. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods got to keep their middle schools—and the classes in band, ceramics, journalism, foreign languages and computer science that went with them.
One exception to this trend was Beverly Cleary K-8 School in the Grant Park neighborhood of inner Northeast Portland. It’s an example of a K-8 in a well-off neighborhood that managed to cobble together an attractive array of electives for older students. But that success bred problems that made it a poster child for what’s wrong with PPS’s current system. It drew more students, further exacerbating inequity.
Since its conversion to a K-8, Beverly Cleary’s population has grown by 50 percent—it now has at least twice as many students as most other neighborhood schools in grades six through eight, about 100 students per class. By comparison, King K-8 School has just 16 kids in the seventh grade.
To accommodate Beverly Cleary’s explosive growth, the district has spread students across three campuses for three years. Not surprisingly, it’s expensive and complicated for one principal to supervise three buildings, including one that is more than a mile from the main campus.
Dragging out the problem is making it worse. “It’s hugely divisive,” says Beverly Cleary parent Heather Leek. “There are people who don’t talk to each other anymore over this.”
Why does the middle-school delay matter?
For Denise Holtrop, the decision to hold off the middle schools’ opening until 2018-19 is maddening. Her fourth-grader attends Jason Lee K-8 School in Northeast Portland, where administrators say the class sizes in grades six through eight are too small to support an equitable education.
If the district opens nearby Roseway Heights Middle School in 2018-19, as planned now, her child would escape the inequity of Lee’s underfunded K-8. But Holtrop’s not sure she can trust school officials’ promises anymore.
PPS pledged in 2014 to have new districtwide boundaries in place for the 2016-17 school year. That didn’t happen. “We felt change was coming,” she says. “Now I wonder if my child will be going to a middle school.”
And Holtrop isn’t the only parent left wondering whether the district can forge ahead. “It feels like we have to start from scratch every year,” says parent activist Scholle McFarland.
When will Southeast Portland see relief?
PPS needs to reopen Kellogg Middle School on Powell Boulevard to accomplish its recommended shifts in Southeast Portland. But Kellogg has been closed for so long it needs at least $20 million in repairs. That means the district can’t open it until after voters approve a new construction bond, and the earliest that could happen is May 2017. That gives PPS only a year to rebuild Kellogg in time for 2018-19.
“We’re now two years into this process,” says Rita Moore, a parent activist from North Portland. “At this point, there’s no danger of anything happening quickly.”
What are the chances PPS will stick to its current timeline?
The volunteer committee leading the work just went through a major shakeup. It shrunk from 26 people to 17, and 10 of those 17 members are brand new. Several members dropped out of the group, frustrated with its slow pace. One member departed after losing his PPS jobs in the fallout from the district’s lead scandal.
One key staffer, Sarah Singer, who supported the volunteer group, is also leaving the district for a job in the private sector. Yet Jason Trombley, the volunteer who co-chairs the group, says he’s hopeful PPS can adhere to its new 2018-19 timeline. “I’m going to remain optimistic until someone tells me otherwise,” he says.
On a 1-to-10 scale, how confident is he? “Three weeks ago, I was a 4,” he says, “now I’m a 7.”