A Citizen’s Guide to the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson High

by Steve, January 10th, 2008

Hey, guess what? Mayor Tom Potter is moving city hall to Jefferson High School next week (Monday, January 14 through Friday, January 18). Not to be outdone, the school board will have their regular board meeting there, too. There are a number of opportunities to be involved in this historic event. Here’s the full schedule (163 KB PDF) from the mayor’s office.

I will be speaking both at the school board meeting Monday night (7 p.m. in the auditorium) and at the city council meeting Wednesday (9:30 a.m. in the auditorium). I will also attend the Mayor’s State of the City address on Friday (11:30 a.m. reception, 12:15 event, in the auditorium) and plan to submit a written question to the mayor.

The school board meeting follows the normal protocol, in that citizens may comment on any agenda items the board will vote on before they vote, and may comment at the end of the meeting for anything else. There is an information item on the agenda about Jefferson Cluster Schools, but no vote. So my remarks will be at the end of the meeting. If you want to speak, contact the board office at 503-916-3741, or you may sign up on site before the meeting. (Once the meeting starts, the sign-up sheet is removed.) The agenda (PDF) is available from the school board’s Web site.

For the city council meeting, there are five slots available on the agenda for “Communications,” which are limited to three minutes, and can be on any topic. The deadline for signing up for Communications has passed, but I have reserved my spot and will be speaking between 9:30 and 9:45. There will also be opportunities for citizen comment during the first agenda item, which is all about Jefferson High. You must sign up in person for public testimony. A sign-up sheet will be available one half hour before the meeting, and testimony is limited to three minutes. You can contact the council clerk’s office with any questions about the protocol. There is also an evening council session, beginning at 6 p.m., with more opportunities for citizen testimony.

The State of the City address is free for general admission seating, or you can get $5 reserved seats from the City Club. Unlike most City Club Friday Forums, club members will not have the opportunity to ask questions in person. Instead, all audience members will be given the opportunity to submit written questions, and the Mayor and his staff will select questions to answer from those submitted.

Other opportunities for civic involvement include a Tuesday night PPS facilities community meeting (7-9:30 p.m.), and a Jefferson PTSA CommUnity Night Thursday (6-8 p.m.).

CommUnity Night will feature opportunities to talk with superintendent Carole Smith, Mayor Tom Potter, and Jefferson principal Cynthia Harris, and lots of stuff for kids big and small. Free child care is available, with entertainment by Penny’s Puppets, face painting, story time and more.

You can also come out to show your support for Jefferson’s student athletes all week long: boys basketball vs. Cleveland (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.), girls basketball vs. Lincoln (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.), wrestling vs. Marshall (Thursday, 7:30 p.m.) and boys basketball vs. Grant with a special half-time show featuring your elected officials (Friday, 7:30 p.m.). Go Demos!

My message throughout the week is simple: The students at Jefferson are not failing, and Jefferson is not failing the students. The entire city of Portland is failing Jefferson, its students, and the greater community it once served. Nobody can look at the state of Jefferson High, compare it to the comprehensive high schools at Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland and Franklin, and deny that we have a grossly inequitable system in place. The school board bears the most responsibility for this, but the city council also must be held accountable for allowing things to get so bad.

The way forward is clear: fully fund Jefferson as a single, comprehensive school serving the entire Jefferson CommUnity. It is simple, obvious, and the right thing to do. The future of our city is at stake. Let’s hold our elected leaders and their hired administrators accountable and demand equity for our North and Northeast Portland children and young adults.

The Big Picture on Charter Schools in N/NE Portland

by Zarwen, January 10th, 2008

It all started with this comment right here on this blog:

“You know, Hockeygod, it just struck me that something missing from your latest edition of the map are the CHARTER SCHOOLS. How many of THOSE are in the red zone???”

As regular visitors know, Steve’s red-and-green maps unleashed a firestorm of debate about the district’s transfer policy and equity in the schools. Most of the debate has centered on the neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfer issue, which has probably been exacerbated in the parts of town, especially North and inner Northeast, that have been hardest hit with neighborhood school closures. These same parts of town, interestingly enough, are now home to more charter schools, former charter schools, and charter school proposals than any other part of town. Hence the map with the color-coded dots. If you look at where schools were closed and where charters were opened, you might just question whether it’s all coincidence. For purposes of this article, I will be focusing primarily on the Jefferson and Roosevelt Cluster areas.
A quick rundown on the closed neighborhood schools in those areas, which are represented by red dots on the map:

  1. Kennedy School (K-8), 5736 NE 33rd. Closed in 1975. Sold to the McMenamins in the 1990’s.
  2. Columbia School (K-8 until 1969, then 4-8), 716 NE Marine Dr. First closed in 1978. Reopened from 1981-83 for grades 6-8. Then used from 1983-86 as temporary housing for students whose neighborhood schools were being renovated. It has since been used as district offices and a county-run alternative high school.
  3. Adams High School, 5700 NE 39th. First closed in June 1981, but reopened in 1983 as Whitaker Middle School. Closed again in 2001 when the building was condemned due to environmental hazards. Children were dispersed to “Whitaker Lakeside” (see below) and Rice Elementary Schools, neither of which was particularly close by the condemned site. (Had Kennedy not been sold, it would have been the nearest and most sensible choice.) Adams was torn down last year; the District is planning to sell off a portion of the land.
  4. Meek Elementary, 4039 NE Albert Ct. Closed in 2003. Has since been remodeled and reopened as Joseph Meek Technical High School, the current incarnation of Vocational Village School (which, interestingly enough, previously occupied another closed elementary, Glenhaven, on NE 82nd Ave. That location was sold to a veterinary practice!).
  5. “Old” Whitaker (originally K-8), 5135 NE Columbia Blvd. First closed in 1981 and children relocated to Columbia School (see above); leased to MESD for an alternative HS until it was reopened in 2001 as “Whitaker Lakeside” (6-8), due to the condemnation of the “new” Whitaker (see above). Closed again in 2005, when students were “consolidated” at Ockley Green, over 4 miles away. Currently the home of an alternative HS once again, this one operated by NAYA, a social services agency for Native Americans. The Oregonian reported that NAYA intends to buy the building within the next three years.
  6. Kenton Elementary, 7528 N. Fenwick. Closed in 2005. Now a Catholic high school via long-term lease, which is why it is shown with two different colored dots on the map.
  7. Applegate Elementary, 7650 N. Commercial. Closed in 2005. The District claims to be looking for a tenant but declined offers from at least two charter schools.
  8. Eliot School (K-8), 2231 N. Flint. First closed in 1984; children sent to Boise, which we know as Boise-Eliot today. Remodeled and reopened in 1985 for the relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School, a neighborhood/magnet hybrid, which had been temporarily sited at the current da Vinci Middle School from 1980-85. Closed again in June 2007 and reopened in September as an all-girls 6-12 focus option academy.
  9. Clarendon Elementary, 9325 N. Van Houten. Closed in June 2007.

*Humboldt was also targeted for closure in the recent past; concerned citizens lobbied successfully to keep it open, but the District is now talking about absorbing it into the Jefferson campus. (Didn’t we ring around that rosy back in 2005 when Vicki Phillips proposed making Jeff into a 7-12 school and parents overwhelmingly rejected the idea?)

The reason given for all of the above closures was “declining enrollment.” I acknowledge that a few on the list are not recent, but I believe that the fallout from those closures of decades ago is still with us today, so that is why I have included them here.

And now a rundown of the charter schools in this area, represented by black dots:

  1. McCoy Academy (6-12), 3802 NE MLK Blvd. Formerly a private alternative school before reopening as a charter in 2000. Closed in 2002 for failing to fulfill its charter.
  2. Trillium K-12, 5420 N. Interstate Ave. Opened in 2002.
  3. Self-Enhancement Inc. Academy 6-8, 3920 N. Kerby. Opened in 2004.
  4. Portland Village Public Charter K-8, 7654 N. Delaware. Opened in 2007.
  5. Ivy School 1-8, 4212 NE Prescott. Application recently rejected by the Portland School Board; future uncertain. Organized by board members of a private Montessori school located around the corner from the proposed Ivy site.
  6. New Harvest K-12, 7025 N Lombard. Application recently rejected by the Portland School Board; future uncertain.

*Although two proposed charter schools listed above have been rejected by the school board, they do have the right to appeal to the State Department of Education; I do not know whether either group has plans to do so. I would be grateful for any responses to this piece that include updates on these proposed charters. The addresses given here for those schools represent their proposed locations.

**The former Victory Middle School charter, sponsored by the State Department of Education, was located at 4824 NE 20th Ave. from 2003-2006. Like McCoy Academy, its charter was revoked due to lack of fulfillment. (Details may be found here.) While the Portland School Board deserves credit for repeatedly denying Victory’s charter applications, I am making mention of Victory because of its contribution (along with the other charters listed, as well as numerous other factors that deserve articles of their own) to the demise of neighborhood schools in this area.

The green dots on the map represent private schools; I asked Steve to include them here as a reflection of the local school-aged population, school closures notwithstanding. While it is true that private and charter schools do not have a limited catchment area as neighborhood schools do, it is also true that the majority of any school’s enrollment will come from within a 3-mile radius. With that in mind, what was the rationale for opening 4 schools (6 if you count the Catholic school at Kenton and the NAYA school at Old Whittaker) in the same area you closed 9? Obviously there must be some children in those neighborhoods that need schools nearby! (What was that about “declining enrollment” again?)

Other rationales might be discerned in how charter schools differ from neighborhood schools (and most other public schools):

  1. Charter schools can set their own admissions criteria and thereby select their student bodies. Neighborhood schools must accept all children who live within their catchment areas, regardless of abilities or needs.
  2. Charter schools are allowed to deviate from curricula established by the local school district as long as they outline their plans in their charters. Their “success rate” is then measured against the charters.
  3. Charter schools are funded at 80% of the per-pupil rate of other public schools. The charter is expected to fundraise or do without the other 20%, which the school district is allowed to keep. Thus, they are cheaper to run than regular public schools.
  4. At other public schools, all teachers must be certified by the state. At charter schools, only 50% of the teaching staff must be certified; the school can set its own hiring criteria for the other half. So, theoretically, half the teachers at charter schools don’t even have to be high school graduates.
  5. The employees of a charter school are not required to join the local union that represents all similar employees in the district. (This affects not only teachers but also secretaries, custodians, etc.) Therefore, the charter school is not required to honor any union contracts in effect in the district. Consequently, charter school employees are usually paid less than their counterparts and may not have benefits such as sick leave or health insurance.

This last point leads me to my charge of union busting. Take a look at the map: close 9 neighborhood schools, open 4 charters, have union-free schools and save $ because half the charter teachers don’t have to be certified and will work for peanuts. Do it in the part of town where (you assume) people are least likely to protest. To be fair, the way the state law governing charter schools is written makes it difficult for the District to say no—and the state can overrule them when they do, as they did with Victory and Southwest Charters (see above and below).

Now, I am not a conspiracy theorist (as a few have charged), nor do I think that charters should be banned. As with most programs, individual charters may be the best match for some children and their families, and I firmly believe they deserve a place, right along with focus options, alternative schools, and other programs that do not fit into the neighborhood school model. In other words, I believe that charters, like focus options and alternative schools, should be supplements to, not replacements for, neighborhood schools. What concerns me is how many of these charters have been crammed into one part of town right on the heels of multiple neighborhood school closures and upheaval within the remaining schools. It’s hard not to consider, even if only for a moment, that PPS was using “declining enrollment” as an excuse to close union schools and replace them with non-union schools.

The parents who are helping organize these charters probably don’t even realize that they’re party to any union-busting, because all they are thinking about is getting a school back in their neighborhood to replace the one they lost, and opening a charter gives them a means to do that. For further evidence, consider these: Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School (LEP) at 2044 E. Burnside is near the former Washington-Monroe HS, which was sold for condos in 2007. Over on westside, there’s the new, state-sponsored Southwest Charter elementary, spearheaded by a group of families from the now-closed Smith School. (They wanted to lease the Smith building, but the district refused; that building is still empty today.) And in Southeast, you’ll find the Arthur Academy Charter elementary halfway between the now-closed Wilcox and Youngson Schools. (Youngson was later reopened for special ed. programs; Wilcox is leased to an alternative program.) Prior to Arthur Academy, the same building housed the Garden Laboratory Charter, which lasted only one year. Lastly, the PPS School Board recently rejected a new charter application for inner Southeast, not far from the now-closed Edwards School (which is currently leased to MESD for a Head Start program). And it’s not even confined to Portland; check out this story from Lincoln County.

I should add that PPS is not new at union-busting activity. Back in the 90’s, both Jefferson and Humboldt were “reconstituted” in violation of the teachers’ contract. And in 2003, PPS teachers agreed to work 10 days for free just so they could keep their health insurance benefits intact. I believe it was that same year that the custodians’ jobs were outsourced. This last issue has recently made the news again because the District is adding insult to injury with their abominable “negotiations” of the custodians’ contract. Whether we want to face it or not, charter schools provide a convenient way for the District to weaken the unions in the name of saving money and offering more “choices” to families that can manage the logistics.

Now, there are plenty of folks out there who are probably thinking that weakening the unions is a good thing. For that matter, why not just do away with them altogether? Think of the money that could be saved on wages and benefits, money that could be used to hire more teachers and shrink class sizes, just the way the charters are doing! I’d like to take these folks for a walk down memory lane:

Teaching did not become a unionized profession until the 1960’s: rather recently compared to many other fields. Prior to then, the teaching force was comprised almost completely of women (it is still majority women today, but a smaller majority), not because women are collectively better at teaching or like it better, but because a man could not support a family on a teacher’s salary then. Teachers of the pre-union era had little in the way of health or pension benefits unless they were married to someone else who had some. They didn’t even get a real lunch break because they were expected to eat with and supervise the children during the lunch period. They could be fired for getting pregnant. For that matter, they could be fired without cause or due process. I could go on, but I hope you all get the idea.

So, to all of you anti-union folks out there, I’d like to say, GET REAL! How many college graduates would be willing to work under such conditions today? The fact that teachers now make a living wage, health benefits and pensions is directly due to union advocacy nationwide. When charters start having difficulty hiring college-educated, state-certified teachers, maybe they’ll persuade the state to reduce the requirement from 50% to 40%. Over time it could be reduced to 30%, 20% and so on. In the meantime, unions will have ever greater difficulty bargaining for living wages and benefits because the public will be saying that it just costs too much, and if the charter school teachers don’t need that much money, why should anyone?

The current proliferation of union-free charter schools has opened the door to send the teaching profession on a U-turn to the 1930’s. Is this the direction in which we want to send the teaching profession in the future? No living wages even with a college education, no job security, no benefits? Is that the message we want to send to today’s children who might want to grow up to be teachers?

Didn’t think so. And, finally, it looks as if the Portland School Board might be starting to agree. They rejected the last four charter applications they reviewed.

Zarwen is a parent, taxpayer, former teacher, and frequent commenter on education blogs.