I’m Takin’ Back this Blog!

by Steve, January 31st, 2008

My first-born child, one half of the reason I’m so insanely ferocious about advocating for our schools, frequently gives me grief because I never write about hockey or war on this blog. “You should rename your blog,” she tells me, and also “Why don’t you ever write about hockey anymore?”

You see, I didn’t start this blog to write about school politics. I started it as a personal blog almost two years ago, and I actually wrote about hockey and war. Then, a year ago, I dipped my toes into PPS equity issues, and it has gradually taken over my blog.

Let me just say this: I would prefer to not have to worry about this shit. Seriously, I’d like it very much if things were like they were back in Iowa City where I grew up, and every neighborhood school was pretty much just like every other neighborhood school, and they all had art, music and P.E.

But, sadly, we do have to worry about this shit in Portland. So in order for me to take back this blog for things that I actually find interesting — hockey, music, macroeconomics, the price of tea in China — I’ve launched a new Web site for PPS equity issues. To satisfy my eight-year-old’s obsession with things matching up, I decided to call it PPS Equity. It’s got a blog, but that’s not all. The most exciting thing to me is a community discussion forum. With a simple registration, anybody can immediately participate and start new discussions in any of a number of forums.

Down the road, I’m going to set up a PPS data dump, in order to streamline access to PPS enrollment and demographic information.

Now is a good time for this. My friends at the Neighborhood Schools Alliance have been hammering the district on equity issues for years, and now, with the Carole Smith administration, we seem to be getting traction. Which only means we’ve got to keep up the pressure.

Check it out. Explore a little, register for the forum, start a new topic in your school cluster’s section. I think you’ll agree PPS Equity is a better vehicle than More Hockey Less War for the cause. Thanks everybody for your support over the last year, and let’s keep the nickel rolling in a bigger, better venue!

The Next Proof Point for Jefferson High

by Steve, January 31st, 2008

Now that the dust has settled after the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson High School, we in the community have had some time to think about things.

When Superintendent Carole Smith’s chief of staff Zeke Smith met with Jefferson community parents late last year, he asked for “proof points” that could be implemented at Jefferson by the start of the 2008-09 school year.

At the time, the only thing I could come up with (besides the idea of funding the school at two to ten times the district average per student in order to restore comprehensive programming) was to tear down the walls between academies.

So far, so good. They’ve announced their intention to do this.

But, like I said at the school board meeting, this is a very small first step in the right direction. (It’s what the community has wanted all along, and it will add teaching FTE at no cost, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for the district.)

In other words, this is not enough. In addition to this move, and the introduction of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, I would like to see the restoration of the music department at Jefferson. It is utterly shameful that a performing arts magnet school does not have a music program. I would like to see at least two FTE positions restored to Jefferson, one choral and one instrumental.

There is some amazing musical talent at Jefferson, but none of these student artists is getting high school credit for it.

But let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t start a band in high school by buying some instruments and hiring a teacher. We need to restore band to the elementary and secondary grades, too. I would like to propose Jefferson cluster elementary and middle bands. The teacher could travel among the eight feeder schools to give individual lessons, and have band rehearsals in the Jefferson band room. So that makes three FTE positions.

We’ve got to get serious in this city about our core curriculum, and music is part of that.

A Nice Shout Out to Rick Seifert

by Steve, January 28th, 2008

Rick Seifert’s excellent The Red Electric blog got a nice write-up by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Oregon editor for NW regional news site Crosscut.com.

Hartnett does a better job describing his angle(s) than I can, and also gives a humorous shout out to yours truly (“possibly the world’s only pacifist blog written by a middle-aged defenseman”).

I “met” Rick via e-mail after we both testified to the school board — he about ads in schools and me about the usual equity stuff — and instantly found him to be one of those people you just know are true to the core.

Besides the fact that I always seem to agree with his viewpoint, I find his steadfastness inspiring and refreshing.

Rally With PPS Custodians and Food Service Workers Today

by Steve, January 28th, 2008

After eight months of negotiations, Portland Public Schools is sticking to their “initial offer” of a 33% pay cut for our custodians. This is an insult to working people everywhere. This would guarantee the loss of many experienced custodians. They are already understaffed, and our children’s health safety will be further jeopardized if we don’t convince PPS negotiators to come to the table with a reasonable offer.

There is a rally Tonight, at 6 pm at PPS headquarters, 501 N. Dixon St. This rally will feature none other than SEIU International president Andy Stern. Stern will also be speaking at a forum tonight, America: A Country of Greed or Greatness? (7:30, First Congregational Church, 1125 SW Park Ave.)

Here’s a printable placard (53KB PDF) to take to the rally and the school board meeting that follows.

The Letter That Didn’t Run

by Steve, January 25th, 2008

I was kind of surprised the Oregonian ran my letter the other day, because they declined to run one I had sent in a few days earlier pointing out a factual error in their coverage of the city council meeting at Jefferson last week.

In last Thursday’s paper (I’m not going to waste time trying to find it online), James Mayer’s coverage of students and parents speaking to the council ended with the sentence “Potter and the rest of the council listened politely, but with no actual role to play in running the school system, offered no solutions.”

This is untrue, of course, and I pointed it out in my letter to the editor:

The brief report on students and parents speaking to the City Council ended with a note that the council has “no actual role to play” with regard to the school district.

The City Council does have a role in Portland Public Schools policy. In her remarks to the council, Nancy Smith referred to the joint Multnomah County and City of Portland audit of the school district’s student transfer policy, which was a funded as part of the Multnomah County income tax passed in May of 2003. This audit requested that Portland Public Schools clarify the purpose of the open transfer system, given that it has contributed to racial and socio-economic segregation, and that it conflicts with other district goals, like strong neighborhood schools.

My remarks to the council on Wednesday also referred to this audit, and pointed out that distrcit policy conflicts with the work of Erik Sten and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. The City Council has an obligation to hold the school district accountable, and also to lobby them to bring their policies in line with the neighborhood and housing policy goals of the city.

The Willamette Week’s blog coverage also made the same error, but when I pointed it out in a comment, it was acknowledged graciously by reporter Beth Slovic. I realize this is a nuanced point, but it’s too bad the Oregonian can’t be bothered to get the story straight, given what’s at stake.

PPS: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

by Steve, January 23rd, 2008

First, let me ask you: Can you imagine running a big city newspaper in the twenty-first century, and not having a Web site?

Evidently the Oregonian ran a letter I sent them, but I missed it because I rarely pick up the dead tree version. And their vertically separated sister organization, OregonLive.com, does not publish the entire newspaper online. Which is why big papers like the Oregonian will soon be a thing of the past.

So for those of you (like me) who missed it, here’s what it said (the headline is the O’s, not mine):

Transfers hurt N. Portland

Missing from Paul Schuberg’s proposal for combining Roosevelt and Jefferson high schools into one “21st century facility” is any discussion of size and demographics (“I, too, have a dream — for Jefferson High,” 1/21/08).

Roosevelt and Jefferson had a combined neighborhood area PPS population of 3,169 in the 2006-07 school year. Any serious facility plan must take into account that North Portland school enrollment declines are more a factor of the district’s loose transfer policy than demographics.

Maybe schools of this size would work; maybe not. But let’s be honest when discussing school facilities, and focus on providing adequate facilities where students live, not where they’ve ended up after more than a decade of mutually-reinforcing program cuts and out-transfers in North Portland.

I’ll be doing some more PPS data analysis to try to help the district understand that if they’re seriously talking about closing two high schools, they damn well better site the remaining and new schools based on neighborhood populations, and not current enrollment. Stay tuned.

Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Steve, January 21st, 2008


In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (78KB PDF) (quote sent to a Jefferson High School e-mail list)

Those of us working for equity in Portland Public Schools are on the second step: negotiation. We’ve clearly documented the gross inequities plaguing the district, and we’ve outlined sensible ways to address these problems. We’ve been speaking to the school board about this for years now, and we’ve taken our concerns to the city council.

Our civic leaders are now saying they “get it” (how could they not?), but we have yet to see any significant concrete action to “address it.”

If the school board fails to address this inequity in a meaningful way, Dr. King has pointed the way toward direct action. Will we need to organize walkouts and boycotts of our schools that have been starved by the institutional racism and classism of PPS? Will we need to do sit-ins at our more comprehensive schools across town? Do we need to draw national attention to the shameful state of our schools before the school board makes significant policy changes to address it?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not calling for direct action right now. I’m willing to give negotiations a chance, and I think we have a reasonable partner in Carole Smith. But policy makers need to be on notice that patience is thin, we are strong, and there is a sleeping giant in the cross-cultural, multi-generational Jefferson community that is ready to be awakened.

This is not a community to be trifled with.

More on the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson

by Steve, January 21st, 2008

I’ve posted a review of the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson over at Metroblogging Portland.

Jefferson: Clean, Lean and Mean

by Steve, January 20th, 2008


After a decade of instability, ill-advised experiments in configuration, and massive outflow of students, Jefferson is left a shadow of its former self, with only 26% of neighborhood students attending, very few electives, and a core curriculum that barely provides students with the credits they need to graduate.

After a week of hosting Mayor Tom Potter, students, staff and community are buoyed by the possibilities. Now that the city’s attention has been focused on our school, exposing the gross inequities of Portland Public Schools for all to see, it’s time to take stock and move forward. Here are some of my broad-stroke thoughts about a Jefferson High that is Clean, Lean, and Mean.

Clean: There’s an old cliche when white people talk about black people. Belying subconscious racism, they’ll compliment a black person for being “clean” or “articulate.” So when I talk about Jefferson being clean, don’t get me wrong; that’s not where I’m coming from. I’m also not talking about the facility, which, despite the monkey business the district has played with custodial staff — first firing them, then outsourcing, then being forced to hire them back, then failing to staff at adequate levels, then trying to cut their wages by 30% — looks better than you might expect.

I’m talking about a clean start, with a new superintendent and administration who seem to get that the community wants a comprehensive high school in their neighborhood. Along those lines, Chief of High Schools Leslie Rennie-Hill and Jefferson principal Cynthia Harris announced at the school board meeting Monday a recommendation that two of Jefferson’s academies, currently representing the vast majority of Jefferson’s high school students (491 of 545), be merged in fall of ’08. This means Jefferson students will have access to all courses offered, which will also include more Advanced Placement (AP) classes next year.

As I said in my remarks to the school board Monday night, this is a just a small first step. But it is an important step in the right direction, after a decade of a failure to listen to the community. Let’s give them some credit for that.

Lean: Whoever designed the “10 minute tour” before the City Club meeting Friday is a genius. First stop: the library, where bookshelves are half empty. Next, the mothballed metal shop, which is now used as a sparsely-equipped workout room. Then a trip through the mothballed TV studio, the mothballed band room, and back to the once beautiful, now neglected auditorium. Not visited were the mothballed wood shop or auto shop, or any of the other classrooms that once offered electives and vocational education.

But lean also means an average class size of 18.1, allowing lots of individualized attention from a teaching staff that is 92.3% “highly qualified,” and with an average 11.5 years experience. You don’t get that at Lincoln or Grant.

Mean: Jefferson’s once comprehensive offerings have been cut closer to the bone than any other high school in Portland. And it’s not just electives like band or career pathways like TV production or industrial education. Jefferson students are barely offered the core curriculum needed to graduate. My friend Nicole posted the comparison of the number of courses offered at Jefferson and Wilson in a comment on this blog. I’m going to print it again here, because you have to wrap your mind around this to understand just how mean things have gotten:

Subject Courses at Jefferson Courses at Wilson
Math 6 14
English 7 13
World Languages 3 17
Music 0 15
Art & Theater 4 12
AP/IB classes 0 12
Career pathways 3 6

I’m especially disgusted with the complete lack of music. This is supposed to be an arts magnet?

District administrators and school board members are fond of pointing out that “we have to get enrollment up” if we want to return comprehensive education to Jefferson High.

To this, I say bullshit!

Pardon my French, but we’ve got to start looking at the real cost of “school choice.” If we’re going to maintain open transfers between neighborhood schools, a policy that overwhelmingly benefits middle class, white families, we’ve got to stop making poor black families pay the cost. The real cost of this policy should be calculated on what it will take to offer core and elective classes at Jefferson like students at Wilson have, regardless of class size. Will this mean we pay four times as much per student at Jefferson? Ten times? I don’t know. But that, my friends, is the real cost of open transfers, and the district must start paying it.

Instead of being honest about this cost, they’ve been shifting it onto the young adults of North and Northeast Portland, who are paying in the form of lost opportunities that can never be recovered. This must end. Immediately.

Against these odds, and destroying the stereotype of black families not being involved with their children’s education, the Jefferson community is one of the fiercest, most protective, most cohesive school communities you will find anywhere. Throughout the Mayor’s week at Jefferson, I was blown away by all the Jefferson graduates I met who have stayed involved with the school, and the multi-generational connection these families maintain.

And this leads to one way Jefferson is mean that no amount of PPS neglect or malice can take away: the tradition of athletic excellence. This was on full display when the first-place class 5A Demos (10-1) took it to first place 6A Grant Generals (9-3) Friday night on the basketball court.

Through sheer hard work, the Demos forced turnovers, grabbed rebounds, blocked shots, and capitalized on scoring opportunities all night to defeat the Generals in front of a packed house that included the mayor. This kind of spirited effort by students, supported by a cross-generational community, is emblematic of why Jefferson will not just survive, but will once again be something all of Portland can be proud of.

Jefferson is rising.

Is PPS Hiding the Truth About Inequity?

by Peter Campbell, January 17th, 2008

Like many PPS parents, I’d like to know which school would be best-suited for my children. How do I determine this? Ideally, I’d be able to look at a single document that lists all of the schools in PPS on the left and the offerings (art, music, etc.) at the top. In addition, there should be a column next to each of the offerings that lists the amount of time devoted to each offering, e.g., “3 times per week for 45 minutes.” This should be all programs in all schools, not just the FTE levels for the various offerings.

Finally, there should be a column that lists information about recess and the amount of time devoted to it at each school.

Cynthia Gilliam (Director, Office of Schools) sent me a document (21 KB PDF) several weeks ago, outlining the various FTE allocations in the district for PE, music, art, technology, dance, drama, second language, library services, and counseling services.

The information in the document is useful, but it’s not complete. It’s also misleading. While I may be able to surmise what the offerings are at each of the schools based on the information provided in this document, I have no idea how often they are offered. Nor do I have any information about recess. Moreover, the document does not include programs that are funded beyond the district, e.g., through school foundations and other private means of funding.

In other words, if you took this document at face value, you’d assume that Chapman — for example — had no arts program because it has zero FTE allotted to art. Yet Chapman students benefit from an artist-in-residence program. You might also assume that, because Chapman has no FTE allotted to drama, that no drama instruction exists at the school. Wrong. K-2 students at Chapman are currently working on a musical production of Cinderella. Chapman has these programs because a large percentage of Chapman parents are wealthy enough to contribute to the school’s foundation. Yet, according to the district data, these programs don’t even exist.

Cynthia Gilliam, Sarah Ames (the district’s Senior Strategic Communications Officer) and Nancy Hauth (a district Resource Specialist affiliated with the enrollment and transfer office) all said the district could not provide this information. Ms. Gilliam said there are lots of elements that parents want to know about, including the ones I’m interested in. She used this as a way to justify the argument that since there are so many things that different parents want to know, there’s no way to satisfy everyone. Ergo, the information is not compiled and not released publicly.

But surely Ms. Gilliam’s response provides an even greater justification for making all of these elements publicly available and easily readable. In other words, why not create a single, comprehensive source of information that includes things like level of teacher experience, the square footage of the classroom, the curriculum materials, class size, diversity, achievement scores, discipline data and school climate, as well as information about enrichment offerings — art, music, etc. — and recess?

Here’s the thing: all of these pieces of information exist. Ms. Ames acknowledged that the information is available, but it’s all stored inside each principal’s head. She said that the district asks a lot of the principals in terms of reporting, and she woudn’t want to burden them with an additional task.

Her solution to the problem? I contact each of the 60 or so principals myself.

While it’s certainly conceivable to visit and/or call the 60 principals, it’s not terribly practical. But if I felt like my requests would get responses, I’d be glad to do this (even though the district could do this much more efficiently and, presumably, would be part of a district employee’s job description). But let’s face it: it’s extremely unlikely that a principal of a school that my daughter does not even attend will bother responding to my request. Why should they? Principals have lots more important things to do.

There are, admittedly, a large number of things that parents need to know about each school. I understand that the information changes year by year and often differs from grade to grade within a school. The information is also, admittedly, complex. But the district underestimates the capacity of concerned parents to make sense of the information, essentially deciding for them that they would not be able to understand it. This is, at the very least, a gross assumption and, at worst, offensive and patronizing.

Ultimately, it’s simply a matter of putting all the pieces together in one place.

So why doesn’t PPS take the time and make the effort? Why does the district tell parents like me (and presumably other parents) to do this work, either by calling each of the 60 principals themselves or by going to the Celebrate PPS event and visiting each of the 60 booths? I’m going to the Celebrate! event, and I’ll bring my spreadsheet to collect data. But I doubt I’ll be able to cover all 60 by myself in the time allotted. And I also doubt rather seriously that I’ll get straight answers in the context of this event, which is essentially a giant sales and promotion event for each school. But I’m still going. Just not expecting much.

If the PPS administration would like to perform a valuable service to the community and offer information upon which parents can make informed choices for their children, then I strongly suggest they make the information I requested available. If the district is committed to “choice,” then information needs to be made available so that parents can make informed choices. An informed choice cannot be made without information.

But if the district continues to keep this information from the public, then the public is justified in assuming that the district has something to hide. If there are inequities in the offerings at the schools, the public needs to know what they are so they can do something about it. Keeping them hidden virtually guarantees that nothing will be done.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.