Intolerable Inequity

by Steve, January 15th, 2008

Here are my prepared remarks to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, delivered January 14, 2008 regular meeting at Jefferson High School.

Thank you for being here, and welcome to what I would like to be my children’s high school.

We’ve finally reached a clear consensus within the district that Jefferson needs to be a comprehensive high school. This is what the Jefferson community has been asking for for years. It is refreshing to finally be on the same page, and I think we should recognize that this new openness springs from the administration of superintendent Smith, as well as from the Jefferson administration.

But let’s be honest. This is a very small first step, even if it is in the right direction. We need to make sure we have the proper momentum to carry through when the eyes of the city are no longer upon us.

Comprehensive doesn’t just mean tearing down the walls between the academies. And it doesn’t just mean adding a couple of AP classes.

To most of us who went to public high school, comprehensive means a school that serves the full range of students, from vocational education through advanced placement. And not just that, but exciting and interesting electives too.

You don’t have to look far for this kind of school. Wilson High has it all. Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland and Franklin look pretty good, too.

But here on this side of town, and in a crescent from St. Johns through outer northeast and into outer southeast Portland, we might as well be living on a different planet. The district’s transfer policy divests over $40 million annually from these parts of town, leaving us with gutted programs and shuttered neighborhood schools.

This school district is fraught with intolerable, glaring inequity. And Jefferson High School is ground zero for that.

In spite of this, we have some of the most creative, resilient students in the city at Jefferson. They are doing it by sheer force of will, because this city can’t see fit to provide them with the opportunities it offers students in wealthier neighborhoods.

Let’s be clear. The students are not failing at Jefferson. Jefferson is not a failing school. This district and this city have failed Jefferson and its community. The segregation and inequities are obvious to anybody who cares to look. As the policy makers responsible for this, you should be ashamed for Portland.

Yes, let’s start by tearing down the walls that currently constrain our students in academic silos. But let’s also tear down the much larger wall in this city that separates rich from poor, black from white, the haves from the have nots.

This is not Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. This is Portland, Oregon, 2008.

I think I speak for most of my neighbors when I say: We’ve had enough. The time has come for real change in the way we distribute our public investment. Let’s start with Jefferson, and make it a model, comprehensive high school we all can be proud of. But let’s keep the ball rolling in the Roosevelt, Madison, and Marshall clusters as well. We need equitable, strong, comprehensive schools in all of our neighborhoods, not just the white, middle class ones. The time is now.