Erik Sten Doesn’t Get It, Part II

by Steve, October 24th, 2007

Back in July, I wrote about Erik Sten’s proposal to help schools struggling with enrollment under Portland Public Schools’ effectively segregationist transfer policy. His proposal, now official Portland city policy, gives $950,000 to the Portland Schools Foundation to dole out in $20,000 – $30,000 grants to help schools “create excitement.” This is part of the larger Schools, Families, Housing Initiative.

Sten was at the school board meeting Monday night, and went on at length about how cool it will be to “create excitement” (he used this phrase several times). He assured the board that the Portland Schools Foundation grant application process wouldn’t be daunting, and grants wouldn’t be denied on technicalities. He gushed about how he’d like to see a full-time organizer in every school in Portland.

Uh huh.

I can’t get over the feeling that Erik Sten has a very strange relationship to reality. What planet is he from?

Anyway, here’s an open letter to Sten.

Dear Commissioner Sten:

I appreciate your work on affordable housing, and also your efforts to link this issue with public schools. But I’m afraid your Schools, Families, Housing Initiative misses the mark.

The neighborhoods with the most affordable housing in Portland are in the high school clusters that have been hardest hit by the inequities of Portland Public Schools’ student transfer policy: Jefferson, Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall. If you are serious about encouraging middle class families to move into or stay in these neighborhoods and attend these schools, you need to pressure the school board to change the policy that allows literally tens of millions of dollars of public investment to flow out of these schools and into schools in neighborhoods with the least affordable housing, and then balkanizes the gutted high schools into narrowly focused “academies” with extremely limited academic offerings.

These schools don’t need organizers to “create excitement.” They need full funding and academic and extracurricular programming on par with schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

As somebody well-versed in affordable housing and poverty issues, I know you can appreciate the importance of public investment in our hardest-hit neighborhoods. Unfortunately, our school board’s policy does the opposite: it shifts public investment away from our poorest neighborhoods and into our wealthiest. For anybody concerned with issues of equitable public policy, the open transfer enrollment policy of Portland Public Schools should be an embarrassment.

Here’s a report (383 KB PDF) I presented to the school board in September, you are interested in following up on this issue.

Another problem with your initiative is the use of the Portland Schools Foundation (PSF) to disburse the funds. This organization has a serious credibility problem within parent communities in our schools. There is concern that PSF has allowed schools with large fund-raising capacity to essentially “double dip” by winning grants from the equity fund. There also been concern about the propriety of the foundation awarding a grant to one of its board members. Why are these grants not administered directly by the Bureau of Housing and Community Development?

I am also concerned that parents in our poorer schools will be intimidated by the grant writing process. Even if the process is streamlined, it is still daunting, especially to a single parent working two jobs to make ends meet. And honestly, what’s in it for them anyway?

My family has decided to leave Portland because of the inequities I’m talking about. Our neighborhood high school is Jefferson, a school I would be proud to send my children to — if it were a comprehensive, fully-funded high school. It is not, and without a fundamental change to the school board’s transfer policy, it’s not going to be. Placing a full-time community organizer there isn’t going to change this fundamental fact.

Again, I can appreciate your efforts, but trying to “create excitement” about our schools in their current state is akin to making beds in a burning house. The Portland Public Schools board of education has created a two-tiered system of public education. Fix that problem, and the excitement will come naturally.

6 Responses to “Erik Sten Doesn’t Get It, Part II”

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I called Rich Rodgers in Sten’s office and told him that having the Portland Schools Foundation administer this grant was akin to having the Republican party administer poverty funds. He laughed at me and told me I was ridiculous and what I was saying was absurd. He was incredibly rude. I suggested he put me on a committee to work on the administration. He told me my reputation was too bad for him to do that. I asked him what reputation was that, the one that I work hard trying to improve things for poor kids in Portland schools? Obviously someone in that office doesn’t get it.

  2. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    What’s ridiculous is that the Foundation will only hand out money to try to get somebody to tell somebody that hey, maybe if someone else told someone that if parents volunteer, whoa, wouldn’t that be great? (Volunteering is great. It is not enough.) But Foundation dollars won’t go for teaching positions, to buy playgrounds, pay for computers and maintenance, etc.

    And honestly — you don’t need money to do word-of-mouth, you just need people who are fierce and proud of and about their schools and their programs and what their kids are discovering and learning. Our parents in PPS are not “spreading the good word” because our kids are not getting their needs met.

    Day before yesterday I talked with a mom, who was asking me about the schools in our neighborhood — she has a kid who is going into kinder, she’s thrilled and excited, they’ll be at our school, won’t that be great?

    My girlfriend who was with us hooted and said, Yeah, it’s great if you want lice!

    Me: “Uh. What she said.”

    And to have to tell her, don’t count on this, expect this, best wishes, here’s my phone number, but this is why we’re transferring out — it was a sad experience, for both of us. It was awful, honestly.

    She did say thank you for the eye-opener, and she’s off to observe classrooms and interview principals. She may not be attending our school, all because she ran into me.

    No, Steve B., you are not ridiculous. Not in the least. Thanks for the work you do, and for being relentless.

  3. Comment from Zarwen:

    Steve, did you copy this letter to the press?

  4. Comment from Steve:

    Steve B., I think your “bad” reputation is that you are a straight shooter. These guys are very busy waving their hands around, and they can’t have somebody who knows his stuff distracting the audience.

    I think they’ve actually convinced themselves this program will make a difference in our schools.

    So we blow a million dollars a of city general fund money on marketing the mess that the PPS school board has created. But instead of just taking out ads, we’re going to do what Wacky Mommy said: “hand out money to try to get somebody to tell somebody that hey, maybe if someone else told someone that if parents volunteer, whoa, wouldn’t that be great?”

    Flippin’ brilliant. Meanwhile, my neighborhood high school still doesn’t have much in the way of electives, much less that International Baccalaureate program we’ve been promised for quite some time now.

  5. Comment from Humboldt parent:

    Thank you so much for your letter to Eric Sten. I am stunned about how far removed from reality Sten and company are on this issue. At the school board meeting on Monday, they announced that they’ve been talking to some leaders and are really excited about a Schools, Family, Housing grants that will be awarded to support Humboldt. But when I asked around, it seems that no one connected with Humboldt has been involved in these discussions.

  6. Comment from Zarwen:

    Sounds like business as usual!