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.