How to Save Jefferson High

by Steve, December 27th, 2007

Sounds lofty, eh? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll tell you there is a growing consensus about what we need to do.

Over the last decade or so, the once proud, comprehensive Jefferson High School has been allowed to stumble through a combination of malign neglect, massive out-transfers, and corporate grant-funded experiments that amount to a pattern of institutional racism. Enrollment now stands at around 600, with a catchment area population of around 1,700. The student population is disproportionately black and poor, and their educational opportunities are starkly limited compared to the wealthier, whiter students who live in the Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland and Franklin clusters.

What remains of Jefferson is a segregated, balkanized, underfunded shell, carved up into four separate academies that benefit neither the black community nor the larger North and Northeast Portland area Jefferson once served.

The attendance area of Jefferson is the most diverse in Portland. There is no single ethnic group in the majority. Imagine if the school looked like the neighborhood, with a focus on unity and understanding. This is exactly what Portland (and the world) needs right now. Imagine Jefferson CommUnity High School, where every student has the same opportunities as children at Lincoln or Grant, and then some. Imagine a championship athletic program, world-class performing arts, and a rigorous academic program that serves the full range of students.

Portland Public Schools and the City of Portland have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to offer the young adults of North Portland every opportunity that is available elsewhere in Portland. There is a growing cross-community consensus that Jefferson needs to be returned to its comprehensive roots. There also appears to be a growing openness on behalf of the district to really listen to the community, admit mistakes, and move forward.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s going to cost money — a lot more than the district is currently spending — to bring Jefferson back to its once proud status.

There are two ways to pay for it (assuming we’re not getting any new funding any time soon): by phasing out neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers (the biggest source of the current inequity), or by shifting funding and resources away from schools like Lincoln, Cleveland, Franklin and Grant. The former makes the most sense, and would be the most equitable, but we can’t force students back to Jefferson without first rebuilding it. That means the latter is required, at least in the near-term.

At this point, I don’t care how we fund it; it is imperative that we create a school with equal opportunities for our most disadvantaged students. It is not fair to punish students who chose to attend their neighborhood school as opposed to playing the lottery and commuting on public transit to school. The transfer policy states that students have a right to attend their neighborhood school, but is silent on the fact that this gives extra privilege to students who live in the wealthiest neighborhoods at the expense of the rest of us. I propose an amended policy statement to the effect that every student has a right to attend their comprehensive neighborhood school.

It’s important to define comprehensive, of course. So here’s what I’d like to see:

  • a rigorous academic core
  • business education
  • vocational education
  • college prep (A.P.) in all disciplines
  • special education
  • foreign languages
  • performing arts (dance, theatre, band, orchestra and choir)
  • visual arts
  • athletics
  • journalism (TV, newspaper and yearbook)
  • science
  • technology

The district excuse that Jefferson doesn’t have the enrollment to fund these things can no longer stand under the bright light of public scrutiny, especially given that it is district policy that has allowed — and even encouraged — enrollment to drop so low.

I propose we immediately fund Jefferson at a rate at least two times the district average per student, and return a full slate of electives, foreign languages and performing arts beginning in the 2008-09 school year. I also want to see the firewalls between academies softly and quietly dismantled, to the extent that students aren’t limited in their academic options based on a choice they make in the ninth (or sixth) grade.

Believe it or not, Jefferson administrators are open to these ideas. They are relieved that the glaring inequities are a concern to the community at large. They understand that the biggest struggle is with the district, specifically with funding.

Our two-tiered system of high schools belongs in the Jim Crow south of the past, not in a city that prides itself on its diversity and civic-mindedness. It’s time to move past the debacle that was the Jefferson redesign under Vicki Phillips. It’s time to come together and demand equitable opportunities for our children, no matter where they live.