History Lesson

by Steve, April 25th, 2012

I’ve maintained a two-year public silence on Portland Public Schools, after devoting countless hours to speaking out and finally deciding to get my kids out of harm’s way. Not everybody has that option, of course, which is why recent events cause me such grief.

The school board’s decision to close two North Portland schools is deja vu all over again. Here’s a little history lesson for the board members who evidently don’t know — or don’t give a shit. (Dates are approximate; I don’t feel like looking them up. Feel free to leave corrections in comments.)

  • 1982: Harriet Tubman Middle School founded as part of a comprehensive desegregation plan pushed by the Black United Front. Middle schools, you see, draw from a wider population area than K-8s, reduce segregation, and allow for more curriculum with less money. Who knew it could be so easy?
  • 1990: Oregon voters pass Measure 5. Universal art, music and PE are cut in PPS. Schools with adequate enrollment and fundraising (i.e. rich schools) are able to maintain some of these “enrichments.”
  • 1996: Oregon voters pass Measure 47, further limiting school funding.
  • 1997: Oregon voters pass Measure 50, reiterating their desire to continue choking off school funding.
  • Early 2000s: A student transfer lottery is instituted. Superintendent Vicki Phillips embraces a free market enrollment policy and encourages schools to compete with one another for enrollment. As Portland’s black neighborhoods gentrify and get whiter, their schools are drained of enrollment and funding as white students transfer out. Phillips also decides to close most middle schools in poor neighborhoods, and revert to the K-8 model that was done away with by the 1982 desegregation plan (and which costs more while delivering less). Tubman middle school is closed, and the Jefferson cluster is left with no middle school. Facing budget cuts, the Phillips administration closes many schools, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods, and the Neighborhood Schools Alliance rises up to oppose her. Future school board member Ruth Adkins emerges as a strong voice in defense of neighborhood schools. Jefferson, Madison, Roosevelt and Marshall High Schools are sliced up into rigidly divided “small schools” pushed by corporate philanthropists (notably the Gates foundation).
  • 2007: As part of the Jefferson re-re-design into Gates “small schools,” Harriet Tubman is re-opened as the all-girls Young Women’s Leadership Academy.
  • Late 2000s: Vicki Phillips departs for a job with Gates and is replaced by Carole Smith. It’s become painfully obvious that the conversion from middle schools to K-8s has suffered a catastrophic lack of planning. Schools like Humboldt, already hurting for enrollment, are unable to offer anything resembling a comprehensive middle grade program. The district’s response: these schools must increase enrollment. But who wants to send their kid to a school that offers so much less than other schools? The district ignores the writing on the wall and refuses to re-examine its ill-fated decision to abandon middle schools in poor neighborhoods.
  • 2012: A majority on the school board, including erstwhile neighborhood schools advocate Ruth Adkins, votes to close Humboldt and Tubman due to low enrollment. Converting Tubman back to a comprehensive middle school and Jefferson K-8s back to K-5 is not even considered. Balancing enrollment (e.g. via reform of the transfer policy that drains enrollment from Humboldt) is also not considered. Rebuilding Whitaker Middle School (as was once promised, years ago) is definitely not considered. Apparently the current superintendent and school board are completely ignorant of the 1982 desegregation plan — not to mention completely unwilling to address the inequities wrought by their open transfer enrollment policy — and believe poor and minority students can learn better if we close their neighborhood schools.

This isn’t just about closing a couple more schools in North Portland. This is part and parcel of a continuing history of institutional racism in Portland Public Schools. Humboldt and the Young Women’s Leadership Academy were set up to fail several years ago. There was never a model in place to support a comprehensive middle grade program in K-8 schools, especially those with enrollment drained by the self-reinforcing death spiral of the open enrollment system (the majority of students in Humboldt’s catchment area — 57% — transfer out). And there was never a funding plan for the “small schools” model once the Gates grants ran out; the YWLA is the last one standing.

This week’s board vote was the inevitable outcome of bad leadership decisions over the past decade (ya can’t say we didn’t tell ya so), and official indifference to issues of race and poverty (even as the district makes much of its “equity” and racial sensitivity programs).

I realize it’s none of my damn business now, having moved out of the district two years ago in disgust. Except it’s everybody’s business how we educate our children, and it’s everybody’s responsibility to speak up about injustice when they see it taking place.

And this, my friends, is some serious injustice being dropped on the heads of North Portland’s children.

Fritz v. Lewis: The City Club Debate

by Steve, September 20th, 2008

Amy Ruiz does a great job capturing the blow-by-blow on the Merc’s blog, so if you didn’t hear Friday’s city council debate, you might want to check that out before reading this.

I pointed out in a comment on Ruiz’s piece the one glaring factual error in the debate, Lewis’ claim that Jefferson High School is “1/4 full” and David Douglas is bursting at the seams because of the lack of affordable housing in inner Portland.

Gentrification and displacement of non-white communities is a serious problem in Portland, and I appreciate Lewis’ attention to this. But it has nothing to do with Jefferson’s (or Madison’s, Marshall’s or Roosevelt’s) under-enrollment.

These schools are under-enrolled because Portland Public Schools has allowed the majority of high school students in these clusters to transfer out while they have dramatically cut educational and extracurricular opportunities.

For example, out of 1,603 PPS high school students living in Jefferson’s attendance area last October, only 403 were enrolled there, along with an additional 142 from other neighborhoods. The balance of Jefferson’s student population attended other PPS neighborhood schools (437), Special Programs/Focus Options (423), with the rest in PPS Charter Schools, Special Services or Community Based Alternatives.

So Lewis is factually incorrect to blame Jefferson’s under-enrollment on the lack of affordable housing even though he is correct that affordable housing is a serious problem (something he and Fritz clearly agree on).

I can’t expect Lewis to be as well-versed in public schools policy and demographics as me, but he’s made this statement before, and it is just plain wrong.

Fritz, by contrast, spoke to the City Council when they met at Jefferson last January. She told them about the injustice of the inequity in opportunity between schools like Jefferson and Wilson, her neighborhood high school, demonstrating a clear understanding of a critical problem facing PPS.

On other issues, Lewis showed himself to be reasonably well-informed, though it’s almost an embarrassment to try to compare his 10 years of experience in the non-profit sector (and a couple years as a small business owner) to Fritz’s 20-year history as a community organizer, public citizen and advocate for equitable, transparent governance.

Lewis is wise to dwell on his business experience, since his public policy experience ends at the intern level. But it all started sounding like “Ethos yada yada started from zero yada yada Ethos yada revolving credit for small businesses yada yada yada Ethos yada started on my credit card yada yada yada make payroll yada yada staff of 75 yada yada yada Ethos…”

People are quick to defend Ethos, and I don’t want to beat up all the low-wage teachers and volunteers there who have brought music to the lives of kids that otherwise wouldn’t have much.

But there’s a certain charity mentality to it. I wrote about it in a comment on PPS Equity last July:

My complaint is with the misconception that Ethos solves the problem of PPS not funding music education in poor schools.

…Lewis perpetuates this myth, as in this quote (since removed) from the Ethos Web site: “When budget cuts threatened to destroy music education programs in Portland Public Schools, Charles stepped in and found a solution.”

It’s not a solution; it’s not even a band aid.

These organizations foster a charity mentality toward the least well-off among us, and … give political cover to policy makers who maintain a system that takes pretty good care of students in wealthy neighborhoods but not in others.

I am a to-the-death supporter of arts education in our schools. Which is why I point out that Ethos reaching a couple thousand students with some small amount of music education is no substitute for an integrated K12 music curriculum, taught by certified, union-represented teachers, for all 47,000 PPS students.

I don’t see any way Ethos is helping us get to that realistic goal (they’re doing it in Beaverton with the same level of state funding and even less federal and local funding). To the contrary, I think Ethos may work against this vision.

In the end, I was pleased that Lewis stayed positive and did not reveal his bombastic side, which was on display in the Willamette Week endorsement interview for the primary (and in his supporters’ comments on this blog and others). In that, besides going after John Branam about his salary as a PPS employee, Lewis seemed to cite his beef with PDC snubbing Ethos as a major reason for wanting to be on the City Council.

He seems to be maturing as a candidate, and I agree with him (as does Fritz, I believe) on several critical issues. But there’s little doubt who’s really the best prepared to lead, and to lead in the direction Portland needs to go.

Amanda Fritz has been significantly involved with the official planning of Portland’s future, and is uniquely qualified to bring citizen’s voices into City Hall and implement the Portland Plan. I stand by my primary endorsement and say “Fritz for City Council!”

Jefferson, Grant Take Top Hoops Honors

by Steve, March 16th, 2008

Inspired by the Jefferson women’s 5A hoops title, the Jefferson men brought home the men’s title last night, defeating Corvallis 55-52.

As soon as the mayhem on McArthur Court was cleared, the Grant Generals took to the court and held off a tough Oregon City team for the 6A title, Grant’s first state title in 20 years.

Jefferson, who finished the season 25-1, lost their only game of the season to 6A Oregon City, and beat Grant in their sole match-up this season. Jefferson players were among the fans that stormed the court after Grant’s victory.

Jefferson Women #1 in Oregon 5A Hoops

by Steve, March 9th, 2008

Victory! The undefeated Lady Demos pulled off a heart-stopping come-from-behind victory over a tenacious Hermiston Bulldogs squad last night at the Chiles Center in Portland to earn the Oregon 5A women’s basketball championship.

Jefferson struggled against a strong Hermiston defense that kept them to the outside in the first half, and trailed the Bulldogs until Janita Badon’s third period buzzer shot put the Lady Demos up by one. The Hermiston defense looked tired in the fourth, and the Jefferson offense began to click. With two minutes to go the Demos started to hold the ball to protect their small lead. Hermiston forced fouls, but Jefferson held on, sunk free throws and grabbed offensive rebounds, eventually winning 67-58.

Jefferson was led by senior Nyesha Sims, 16 points; sophomore Denaya Brazzle, 15 points; and sophomore Denise Hammick with 10 points and stellar defense.

It was an emotional finish to a perfect season. Though significantly outnumbered in their own back yard by Hermiston fans, the Jefferson family put on a show of support that spilled onto the court at the final horn.

Oh, and the Winter Hawks won last night, too, after a 22-game losing streak.

Jefferson Women Show Champion Spirit

by Steve, March 8th, 2008

Demos Win!In Less than two hours, the undefeated Jefferson Lady Demos play their final game of the season, the Oregon 5A state championship, vs. Hermiston.
The Lady Demos out-hustled, out-defended and out-shot Willamette (Eugene) in the semi-final last night, winning 55-44 after a much closer first half against a spirited Willamette team.
Janita Badon

Senior Nyesha Sims led the way with fourteen points, along with Janita Badon (pictured) with 13 and Tyrisha Blake with 10.

The University of Portland’s Chiles center was rocked by a sizable and vocal Jefferson cheering section, much of which made their way to Jefferson High to see the second-half of the men’s game, which saw Jefferson defeat Wilsonville 69-51 in their second-round playoff match up. The boys are on to state in Eugene next week.

The Next Proof Point for Jefferson High

by Steve, January 31st, 2008

Now that the dust has settled after the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson High School, we in the community have had some time to think about things.

When Superintendent Carole Smith’s chief of staff Zeke Smith met with Jefferson community parents late last year, he asked for “proof points” that could be implemented at Jefferson by the start of the 2008-09 school year.

At the time, the only thing I could come up with (besides the idea of funding the school at two to ten times the district average per student in order to restore comprehensive programming) was to tear down the walls between academies.

So far, so good. They’ve announced their intention to do this.

But, like I said at the school board meeting, this is a very small first step in the right direction. (It’s what the community has wanted all along, and it will add teaching FTE at no cost, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for the district.)

In other words, this is not enough. In addition to this move, and the introduction of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, I would like to see the restoration of the music department at Jefferson. It is utterly shameful that a performing arts magnet school does not have a music program. I would like to see at least two FTE positions restored to Jefferson, one choral and one instrumental.

There is some amazing musical talent at Jefferson, but none of these student artists is getting high school credit for it.

But let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t start a band in high school by buying some instruments and hiring a teacher. We need to restore band to the elementary and secondary grades, too. I would like to propose Jefferson cluster elementary and middle bands. The teacher could travel among the eight feeder schools to give individual lessons, and have band rehearsals in the Jefferson band room. So that makes three FTE positions.

We’ve got to get serious in this city about our core curriculum, and music is part of that.

Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Steve, January 21st, 2008


In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (78KB PDF) (quote sent to a Jefferson High School e-mail list)

Those of us working for equity in Portland Public Schools are on the second step: negotiation. We’ve clearly documented the gross inequities plaguing the district, and we’ve outlined sensible ways to address these problems. We’ve been speaking to the school board about this for years now, and we’ve taken our concerns to the city council.

Our civic leaders are now saying they “get it” (how could they not?), but we have yet to see any significant concrete action to “address it.”

If the school board fails to address this inequity in a meaningful way, Dr. King has pointed the way toward direct action. Will we need to organize walkouts and boycotts of our schools that have been starved by the institutional racism and classism of PPS? Will we need to do sit-ins at our more comprehensive schools across town? Do we need to draw national attention to the shameful state of our schools before the school board makes significant policy changes to address it?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not calling for direct action right now. I’m willing to give negotiations a chance, and I think we have a reasonable partner in Carole Smith. But policy makers need to be on notice that patience is thin, we are strong, and there is a sleeping giant in the cross-cultural, multi-generational Jefferson community that is ready to be awakened.

This is not a community to be trifled with.

More on the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson

by Steve, January 21st, 2008

I’ve posted a review of the Mayor’s Week at Jefferson over at Metroblogging Portland.

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.