The audience at Monday’s school board meeting witnessed a rare occurrence: board members disagreeing with one another. Usually, by the time a meeting is called, all the rough spots between directors have been ironed out in private.

Well, theres a talking point.
  • Well, there's a talking point.
On Monday the directors revised—often line-by-line—Superintendent Carole Smith’s "resolution" that lays down vague goals for the overhaul of Portland’s high school system. Central to Smith's plan are two assumptions: 1) Portland needs to close or shrink at least one high school and 2) Magnet-like "focus option" schools will take up the slack from closed neighborhood schools.

Apart from the issue of whether the district needs to close schools (which, of course, inspired bickering across the board members' table), Co-Chair Ruth Adkins voiced some common-sense concerns on a number of important issues. She’s usually pretty quiet during board meetings, and it was nice to see her bring some skepticism to the buzzword-addled debate.

Provided after each of Adkins’ suggestions is the dismissive response of Co-Chair Trudy Sargent, who seems happy with the resolution as it is.

Is Enrollment Growing?

Proponents of a streamlined high school system point to the fact that Portland’s student population has shrunk by nearly a third in the past 25 years. That’s a sobering figure, as the population of schools like Jefferson dwindles to a few hundred. But Adkins pointed out that enrollment in lower grades is now growing—which could mean more demand for high schools once this plan is in full swing. Solution? Portland Public Schools (PPS) staff is looking at data from past growth in lower grades, to see if it forecasts an uptick in high school enrollment.
Sargent Smackdown: "This is the first year we’ve had an increase in numbers. Is that a 'turning around,' or just a 'temporary up?'"

Transfer Policy

The high school redesign plans have drawn general accusations of "social engineering" in their attempt to improve equity between races and income levels. PPS wants to prevent students from transferring out of their neighborhoods to "better" schools.

But there’s a real zinger buried in the roman numerals of the resolution. It proposes allowing individual students to transfer in order to "promote socio-economic diversity beyond the levels possible by community school boundaries alone."

This has undertones of the district’s historical attempts to combat segregation by busing African-American students out of their neighborhoods to whiter schools. Essentially, it’s an admission that reforming and enforcing boundaries may not provide the kind of diversity the district wants. "The neighborhood system will make the schools a little bit more diverse," says PPS spokesman Matt Shelby, "not a lot."

This, along with other exceptions to the no-transfer rule (for language immersion students, arts programs, etc.) could undermine the neighborhood-focused model the district is proposing. And that’s a problem with the current system too.

Here’s where Adkins comes in: she’s worried about "the accretion of one-off [exceptions] over umpteen years… setting [us] up for another transfer policy that comes pre-loaded with exceptions."
Sargent Smackdown: "If we don’t give [students] opportunities, they’ll go get them somewhere else, like private schools." At least, the ones who can afford private school will.

Overcrowding

While the board was making its way down the list of "desired outcomes" for a new high school system, student representative Henry Johnson suggested the addition of "small classroom sizes." This elicited condescending laughter from some board members and the audience.
Sargent Smackdown Jr.: "I don’t think we can say we can provide that. I don’t think we have the resources."

Nice try, Henry. Way to make the adults look cynical, though. What’s interesting is that a few minutes later, Co-Chair Adkins suggested a very similar addition. In the criteria for school assignment, she asked to add the words "avoid overcrowding." Perhaps anticipating a similar response to what Henry got, she added, "Humor me."
Sargent Smackdown: None, actually. Perhaps she was humoring Adkins.


Halfway through the debate, Adkins apologized for how long it was taking. "This would usually go to committee," she said, referring to the board’s smaller, less publicized meetings. But if she’s always this talkative in committee meetings, I’m going to have to start going to those too. Who knows what we could be missing?