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.

15 Responses to “Jefferson: Clean, Lean and Mean”

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Well said, Steve. The chart is disgusting and is the result of the benign neglect of the Stand for Children dominated school board.

    Nice the mayor made the game. Think he might make the Marshall v. Madison one too?

  2. Comment from rubycakes:

    Even though there is a gross discrepancy between the two schools arts offerings, the numbers on your chart are somewhat misleading.

    Wilson currently has 9 music classes. By this I mean 9 classes running on a daily basis. I assume you counted the 15 from the course description guide. You can print as many classes as you wish in a course description guide but you have to have the FTE, teachers, feeder pattern, kids actually signing up for the class, etc. to make them fly. (This is kind of like saying your car can do 200 because that’s how high the speedometer goes.) Wilson has a music FTE of 1.8 (last year 1.5). Jefferson had a .5 FTE in music last year so on that basis Wilson and Jefferson were only one faculty person different.

    As for theater, the position at Wilson is a .8 FTE that has been paid through fundraising efforts. (The new music teacher at Lincoln was paid for the same way.) This is yet another example of areas that at “better off” financially able to fund positions cut by the district, school admin, etc.

  3. Comment from Steve:

    I stand corrected. Wilson has 9 music classes, and Jefferson still has zero.

    Similar sized neighborhood student population; Wilson has 1.8 FTE music, Jefferson has zero. This still doesn’t sound fair to me.

    You can pick nits with how the course offerings are compared, but you can’t deny that Jefferson students have far fewer classes — in every discipline — than students at schools like Wilson.

    And I should also point out that the district is not forthcoming with this type of comparison chart. (If they were, I’d be more likely to get the numbers right.) I guess you can see why they wouldn’t want to shout it from the rooftops, but we have a right to know this information as both taxpayers and consumers of the services PPS offers.

  4. Comment from rubycakes:


    I agree with you. I’m not picking nits, I’m stating facts and the fact is, NEITHER school is adequately taken care of (yes, Jefferson is much worse off, zero FTE in the arts). Wilson is a poor administrative decision away from having no music classes either. As we’ve been saying for this post and the previous one, there is no coordinated plan for music or the arts. If we are headed for a recession (strong evidence to suggest we are) and if what the mumblings say is true (that Vicki Phillips used alot of one year only money to put “enrichment” classes back into the schools last year mostly for elementaries). That money will not be there next year so we are back to where we were 2 years ago.

    Steve, it is atrocious that the schools in North, Northeast, outer NE, and outer SE are most poorly served with a full slate of classes. It is the worst cases of classism and bias against the poorest among us. BUT, if you’re wishing that Jefferson was as strong as Wilson in the arts, well, you’re setting your sights too low. I know something is better than nothing but our kids deserve the best our society can offer. We can do better.

    The demographics of PPS don’t point to a change in our enrollment (and the per head $$ that goes with it) until 2011. High school enrollment will continue to decline district wide and the elementaries will see a rebound in 2011 (although there was an increase in elementary enrollment this year; demographers aren’t sure why). Until then we will see shrinking high schools which means lower FTE across the board. Unless the school board invests heavily in the arts nothing is going to change.

    Nothing short of a call to arms to force the Mayor, City Council, School Board, Superintendant, Governor, both houses of the legislature can fix this mess.

  5. Comment from Steve:

    We are in agreement. My perspective is a little skewed by my close-up view of the atrocity that is the district’s treatment of Jefferson.

    I fully support a district-wide K-12 music program, like the one that benefited me so greatly growing up.

    You’re right; hoping for what Wilson has is setting our sites too low. But it serves as a stark illustration of the inequity in our district to lay out Wilson’s course offerings along side Jefferson’s.

  6. Comment from rubycakes:

    Yes, it’s a crime. Especially when Jefferson was the arts magnet for so many years.

    The Roosevelt cluster is grossly underserved in terms of music as well. There is very little music in its feeder schools. Jefferson can at least take a little solace that Ockley Green has music classes.

    I was hoping after Roosevelts run at the state basketball playoffs last year that they would notice the lack of a band program (no pep band) and try and reconstitute the program–no dice. With all the K-8s in the Roosevelt cluster it would be nice to see some music programs put into place.

  7. Comment from Steve Buel:

    If we would have hung onto the middle schools we could have put all sorts of arts back in them at almost no cost. Nothing to it. Pretty hard to have a decent arts program in high school when you don’t have any on the way up. Typical thinking by PPS to not pay any attention to the middle grades. It is where the major problems begin and we just let them (dropouts, drugs, alcohol, sex, crime — what the heck).

  8. Comment from Zarwen:

    Here’s a personal anecdote about the lack of music classes at Jeff:

    1996 was the year that the draconian cuts began. My position as a middle school choir director was eliminated. When the teacher transfer rounds were posted, I noticed a choir director position at Jeff, so I applied for it. A week or so later I received a letter from Human Resources telling me that the position had been “withdrawn.”

    I thought that was odd, so I called an HR administrator that I knew and asked her to explain. She told me that the position had been eliminated AFTER the teachers transfer rounds were posted. Wasn’t that decision supposed to be made beforehand? Yes, but it wasn’t.

    Just another illustration of what Jefferson decision- making has been like.

  9. Comment from Terry:

    There’s a reason Jefferson dubs itself the “School of Champions”, and it’s not just about athletics.

    I’ve long believed that the Jefferson community won’t sit idly by while the school is gradually starved to death. Hopefully the broader community, including the school board, will come to the same conclusion and start rectifying the injustices that have been heaped on this once (and still) proud school.

    Now, as Steve B. reminds us, let’s not forget about Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall and their many poorly served feeder schools.

    Excellent post once again, Steve.

  10. Comment from Elizabeth:

    I chatted with the school counselor when I went to the open house on Thursday night, and one astounding thing she told me is that the instruments they used to have for music classes were *taken* by other schools. They just came and got them. I’m assuming this was after they were no longer having music classes, but still! Oh, yeah, Jeff has instruments they aren’t using. Let’s go get them!

    The first thing I looked at at the open house was the book of students’ writing they used to publish. Yeah, used to, because their funding got dropped. But they will publish again this year! I’m not sure where the funding is coming from but they said they are.

    Sad. I sure hope that Potter being there for the week will raise consciousness….and funds.

  11. Comment from rubycakes:


    Sorry to inform you about the instruments but they are considered district instruments not school instruments. Whenever a program dies (gets shut down) the instruments are gathered up by the district and passed out to those programs with still existing programs. This is a long standing controversy. Instruments in the district are in need of some “refresh money” like the do with computers. When computers are 3 years old they are replaced with “refresh money”. The school district has not purchased any new instruments since 1988. Sad.

  12. Comment from Steve:

    I did musical instrument repair in the ’90s, and a fair number of PPS horns crossed my bench. They were beat to hell then. There’s no reason a well-maintained saxophone or trumpet can’t last decades, but we know all about deferred maintenance at PPS….

  13. Comment from rubycakes:

    Actually instrument repair is one thing that PPS does better than any other district (there has to be one thing they do right, right?). The district has an instrument repair person on staff that repairs all district instruments. There used to be 2 people, now there’s only one.

    You’re right instruments should last decades and they do. The schools have instruments in daily use over 50 years old (and beyond). But there is a limit to how many times you can repair something. Kind of like the old saying, “I’ve had the same hammer for 40 years, only had to replace the handle three times and head twice”.

  14. Comment from Zarwen:

    Actually, I remember when there were THREE guys repairing instruments. I thought the last one had retired? If not, they plan to eliminate the repair shop once he does. They have talked for years about all the money they will “save” on outsourcing. (An audit showed that keeping the repair shop was more cost-effective, many times over. I remember the presentation of the audit at a music teachers’ meeting.)

    Same thing with the pianos: once the tuner retired, they cut the position rather than hire a replacement to “save money.” But now the pianos do not get tuned unless someone donates services or money for that specifically. How many PTAs do you know of that hold fundraisers for piano tuning? Horrifying, the shape those pianos are in now.

  15. Comment from Anne:

    The debate about whether other schools stole the Jeff instruments made me imagine this:

    One day when PPS tries to “shut down” the music dept. in a high school, students, teachers, and parents from all the high schools will come together and say “No! you cannot do this here or anywhere else. This is an outrage. We need these classes, these instruments, more than your PR dept, more than any consultant you hire to study us, more than any administrator. And,while we’re at, it let’s talk about NCLB and the war on Iraq where the money that should be going into education is lining the pockets of fascist warmongerers. By the way, until ALL of us have what we deserve NONE of us are moving from this point.”

    We can do this kind of thing. Jeff (and Roosevelt and Madison and Marshall) don’t need charity, they need solidarity. And until we do have that solidarity we will fighting each other over crumbs (or twenty year old broken instruments).

    Thank you for indulging my little fantasy. Let me know when the direct action begins. I did get a glimmer of this when the SEIU LOCAL 503 workers chanted about Houston tactics and walked out of a school board meeting in unison.