They’re Watching Me

by Steve, November 8th, 2007

I’m a bit wonky about numbers… some of you might know this about me. So I have a couple different ways of tracking visitor stats for this blog. One of them is AWStats, which analyzes my Apache logs and gives me nice reports. The other is Site Meter, which uses an image and some JavaScript embedded on each page of the site. I like Site Meter because it gives me an instant look at who’s on my site at any given time, and organizes data by visit, which is cool. Today I just happened to take a look, and lo and behold, I got four visits from my friends at Portland Public Schools, all within about 45 minutes. Glad you guys are reading!k12-1.jpg

PPS School Board Dances Around the Transfer Issue

by Steve, November 7th, 2007

The Portland Public Schools Board of Education finally took up the open transfer policy, sixteen months after city and county auditors requested they clarify the purpose of the policy.

One little problem: They didn’t clarify the purpose of the policy.

Nobody on the school board, and nobody in the administration seems to have a clue why we have this policy.

The discussion began with a staff report on the policy, which came off as very defensive. I asked Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) president Jeff Miller what he thought of the presentation.

“The staff presentation resembled a promotional pitch more than a serious analysis of the student transfer policy and its consequences,” said Miller. “On an issue of such importance, a school board is entitled to expect better.”

The presentation was primarily given by Judy Brennan, the program director of the Enrollment and Transfer Center. The report carefully avoided any discussion of rationale for the policy, and glossed over the racial and economic segregation that it causes. Evidently district staff feel an 11% increase in poverty in the Roosevelt cluster and a 20% increase in racial isolation at Jefferson High is “slight.”

In order to make the PPS transfer policy look good, they compared our district to Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul , San Francisco and Seattle. And what do you know, we do look better compared to them.

They engaged a marketing research firm (for $71,000) to put together focus groups (which appeared to include very few black people), and guess what? They found lots of people who are really happy with the policy! Everybody loves school choice! (Well, 174 people do, anyway, and we paid $71,000 to find them and video tape them.) This was a major part of the presentation.

Finally, Brennan admonished against even slight changes to the policy. (It was at this point that it became very clear that she was selling the policy, not investigating it.)

The recommendations of the report are to

  1. create a standing committee of staff parents and community members (but not students, as student representative Antoinette Myers later took issue with)
  2. create a strategy for increasing familiarity with neighborhood schools
  3. implement a boundary change policy
  4. focus on diversity issues
  5. think about replicating successful programs into underserved areas, and
  6. help students who transfer.

In other words, let’s just keep dancing around the issue, and not really do anything about it.

Due to a quirk in scheduling of public comment, I had the opportunity to speak immediately after Brennan’s presentation. Here’s what I said.

Sixteen months ago, city and county auditors noted the increased racial isolation caused by the open transfer policy. They also noted that this policy is at odds with other district priorities, like strong neighborhood schools.

I presented you with my own study in September showing that this policy leads to an annual diversion of tens of millions of dollars of public investment from Portland’s neediest neighborhoods and into its wealthiest areas.

And now we have this report which fails to answer the central question first posed 16 months ago: What is the purpose of the open transfer policy?

This report completely ignores the neighborhood funding inequity my study showed, and glosses over the racial isolation and concentration of poverty the district’s research shows. The report talks about the “slight” increase of poverty. But is an 11% increase in the Jefferson cluster slight? It calls its effect on racial and ethnic concentration “similar.”

In 2006 Jefferson High had an attendance area student population that was 47.9% black, yet the school was 68.4% black. Do you really consider a 20% increase “slight?”

The study also fails to address the most egregious indirect result of the open transfer policy, our two-tiered system of high schools.

There are two kinds of neighborhood high schools in PPS: comprehensive schools, with a full range of options for all students, and schools split into academies, with limited options. Is it an accident that the rich get comprehensive schools and the poor get academies?

Finally, the report fails to address the local control of administrators over FTE budgets, which leads to gross programming differences between neighborhood schools, fueling the demand for neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

In this report, Portland is compared to other districts that seem to have been cherry picked to make Portland look good. They are called peers, even though no serious demographer would consider Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis or St. Paul to be peers of Portland.

The report relies heavily on market research, presented as if it were statistical data. Using marketing techniques instead of scientific research shows a distinct bias against discovering the truth.

The problems caused by this policy are clear. You all know them: racial and economic segregation, diversion of public investment from the neighborhoods that need it the most, a two-tiered high school system, and the fragmentation of communities.

What we don’t know is what problem this policy is supposed to solve. Instead of addressing that simple question, you’ve given us a lot of hand waving about how much better we are than Boston, how much people really like the system, and how it only “slightly” increases racial segregation and the concentration of poverty.

I say, if you have a policy that increases segregation, you darn well better have a Very Important Problem you’re solving. Why can’t any of you tell us what that Very Important Problem is?

This was followed by board discussion, which I found very interesting. I thought I saw glimmers of understanding from Dan Ryan, Dilafruz Williams, Ruth Adkins and Sonja Henning. Student rep Antoinette Myers seems to get it more than the voting members.

Dan Ryan talked of seeing that “there is equity in every neighborhood school.” Dilafruz Williams spoke of a “segregated city by race and by class.” Ruth Adkins used the term “white flight.”

After a bit of this, Sonja Henning finally cut to the chase. “I’m just still slightly confused and somewhat curious to hear from my colleagues, what do you all think the overall goal or objective is or was for this policy?” she asked. “Without some objective or goal, everything else is just talking around the surface.”

This threw things into a little bit of a tizzy. Ruth Adkins jumped in by quoting one of Brennan’s power point slides about promoting diversity, but when pressed by Henning, said “The unintended effect effect of it has been… a way for people to feel like they can escape their school if their neighborhood school isn’t good enough.”

Yes, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? I was glad Ruth had the guts to come right out and say that. And of course, it just leads to more inequity.

Still, nobody managed to articulate a legitimate rationale for allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

But at least they talked about equity. Even Trudy Sargent got into the act on this, questioning the local control over enrichment programs, and suggesting that the board could mandate music in every school. She talked about better TAG programs in every school. “How do we make the district more fair in what’s offered to kids,” she asked, “And that’s what’s at the bottom of this, is equity across the district, so we have strong neighborhood schools in every district.”

Of course it was all lost on Bobbie Regan, whose most noteworthy contribution was in wondering if we should pay for transportation for tranfers like our “peer” districts in Boston and San Francisco do, and also if we should remove the guarantee of neighborhood schools.

But despite these glimmers of hope and understanding by a majority of board members, nobody dared ask why we would need neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers once we have programming equity.

And shockingly, as the discussion came to a close, the one change they suggested to the staff recommendations was to bump up the priority of helping students who transfer.

This was not lost on PAT president Miller.

“During their discussion, some Board members insisted that PPS could be doing more for those students who transfer,” he said. “The Board should ponder the wisdom of such a course. Encouraging more students to leave struggling schools is likely to further harm those schools.”

Which puts us back in the vicious cycle of poor schools being drained of enrollment and funding. Somehow or another, this school board, even while showing they’re just about, almost, not quite able to get it, can’t quite put all the pieces together.

Mega Developers Lose; Big Tobacco Wins

by Steve, November 7th, 2007

Oregonians are a fickle bunch. Measure 49, was approved by a larger margin than Measure 37, which it significantly modifies. It had notably large margins of victory in counties with the most Measure 37 claims.

Measure 50 went down, thanks largely to the crazy-big money from evil-big tobacco. Now the Democrats who control the state house and governor’s mansion have to do something about our unstable and insufficient state revenue stream if they really want to fund social services. I’m not holding my breath.

Ballots Due; Get ’em In!

by Steve, November 6th, 2007

Oregonians: Did you vote? Did you mean to vote? Get those suckers to a drop box by 8pm today. It’s too late to mail them. Here’s a statewide list of locations. Here is my official endorsement of “yes” votes on both measueres 49 and 50.

New Charters: New Harvest Advised to Withdraw; Ivy Given Conditional OK

by Steve, November 3rd, 2007

Portland Public Schools staff weighed in on two new charter school applications yesterday, and have five pages of questions for the applicants.

The founders of New Harvest Charter School (NHCS), much discussed over at the Urban Mamas “Activistas” blog and on this blog, got a major wakeup call from the PPS staff who reviewed their application.The New Harvest application “does not yet demonstrate the capacity to successfully start and operate the proposed charter school,” wrote the reviewers in their recommendation that NHCS founders withdraw their application.

District reviewers evaluate each section of the charter school application: General Information; Mission Statement and Purposes; Educational Program; Support for Learning; Accountability; and Financial, Business and Organizational Plan. New Harvest failed to get staff recommendations for General Information; Educational Program; Accountability; and Financial, Business and Organizational Plan.

Under General Information, New Harvest was dinged for letters of recommendation dating back to 1994, not identifying their design team, failure to clearly outline a daily schedule for grades 3-7, poor accounting of annual instructional hours, and nebulous claims about providing “40-120 minutes per day of P.E.” without showing how this could work with their schedule. Reviewers were split on whether the applicants showed sufficient demand in St. Johns for this school. Survey data were inconsistent and not clearly presented.

Under the Educational Program section, NHCS stated expectations but did “not provide sufficient concrete strategies for achieving them.” The reviewers were generally frustrated by vagaries about how the applicants would handle ESL and TAG students, how foreign language instruction and arts would be integrated, and how state, local and national standards would be applied. Reviewers “again expressed concerns about the school calendar and daily schedule,” and wondered “how New Harvest will ensure students’ progress toward eventual diploma graduation.”

Under Support for Learning, NHCS organizers promised to seek staff who “demonstrate a commitment to healthy lifestyle choices and sharing greater health awareness” and who “[A]re willing to take courageous, creative action in helping students achieve academic, emotional, social and physical success.” Nice feel-good sentiment, but the reviewers note “The application does not name or describe the standards for those criteria.”

It goes on and on like this. I’m not even halfway through the application review at this point. Later, in the Financial, Business and Organizational Plan, reviewers note “Financial and management experience and expertise appear to be minimal throughout the organization.”

The reviewers seem to be saying, in other words, you can’t just say “We’re going to have a groovy school,” wave your hands in the air, and get your charter approved. Which is a Good Thing. And it is a lesson for people who see something glittering and assume it’s gold (like the parent who thought NHCS would have a 16-1 teaching ratio, and that’s all she needed to know).

Ruth Adkins, Trudy Sargent and Bobbie Regan, the school board members on the Charter Schools committee, were obviously less than impressed with this report, according to Wacky Mommy, who attended on behalf of families concerned about neighborhood schools.

Further adding to their chagrin was the fact that the NHCS organizers almost missed the meeting entirely (due to what the organizers described as “technical difficulties”), showing up with ten minutes remaining. Oblivious to the excoriation their application had already received, they handed out a thick “addendum”, a move met with a reminder that ther application was due in its entirety on July 16.

If they choose not to withdraw, the NHCS organizers will have to face a serious grilling at a November 13 public hearing. It seems highly unlikely they would succeed.

The other charter application reviewed yesterday was for the Ivy Charter School, a proposed Montessori school two blocks from the closed Meek Elementary, half a mile from Rigler and one and a half miles from Scott, existing PPS neighborhood elementary schools. Ivy got a conditional staff recommendation for approval, subject to satisfactory responses to two pages of questions.

Is Ivy an intended conversion of the Montessori of Alameda 21st Century School? That’s the biggest question. That would be illegal under state law. Ivy shares at least one board member with that school, located a block from the proposed Ivy site.

If the school board eventually approves Ivy, this will be yet another example of a private or charter school (or both) swooping in to fill the void left by closed neighborhood schools. This would be yet another step down the road to the privatization of our public schools.

Update: Don’t forget to read Wacky Mommy’s own account of the meeting at her blog.

A Quiet Weekend in Hawkey Town

by Steve, November 1st, 2007

The Portland Winter Hawks (2-13-0-0) got off the bus in Medicine Hat, Alberta this morning, and got right on the ice for practice after a 940 mile overnight bus trip from Portland. They’ve got a brutal three-in-three against Medicine Hat (12-3-2-0) tomorrow night, Lethbridge (9-7-1-1) Saturday and Kootenay (7-10-2-0) Sunday.

Hopefully the Hawks can overcome bus legs, gain some confidence, and pick up a few points on this 1,772 mile central swing.

The Jaguars are off this weekend, and back in action November 10 and 11 against Seattle at Valley.

The Portland State University Vikings are on the road to the Tri Cities for three-in-three this weekend. One game against Columbia Basin and two games against Walla Walla.

I’ve saved the ugly news for last: The Fort Vancouver Pioneers have ended their season early, due to a conflict with their league over transportation. I kind of wondered how they were going to manage the travel, given most (all?) of the other teams were in B.C. And I had doubts about how well organized the WHA was. Now we know. I’m not sure what the future holds for the Pios, since I believe some of their front office guys earned lifetime bans from USA Hockey. The WHA, an independent league, may have been their last best hope for continuing as a hockey club.

So it goes.