In the few days since the school year ended, a group of teachers and coaches came together to orchestrate a demonstration against the rumored cut of Benson High School’s sports programming.
Led by John Slaughter, former football coach at Benson for twelve years and a graduate of 1998, and Steve Curley who has taught at the school since 2005, the pair created a Facebook event over the weekend and planned a march to interrupt the Portland Public Schools weekly board meeting. At the same time, a petition signed “Benson Athletes” began circulating and garnered over 600 signatures in three days.
In the hour leading up to the march’s departure, kids of all ages filed out of the on-site basketball camp that was founded by A. C. Green almost 30 years ago. Green, a Benson graduate of 1981 and retired NBA player who boasts the title of most consecutive games played in NBA history says, “[Sports are] really important for other kids who are in the same environment as me. You never know the diamonds in the rough that you may see and get discovered inside of a high school… Education is also so important [because] the focus, the learning, the discipline of school, and how to apply yourself in school—the foundation work—always starts in high school.”
The march, comprised primarily of Benson students, staff, and family, began on the front lawn of Benson Polytechnic High School and neared 150 participants at its prime as they snaked through the sidewalks of Northeast Portland.
The initial speculations were that sports programming was to be cut altogether, but newer information also spread by word-of-mouth suggests the proposal would reduce programming to a handful of select sports including basketball, track, and tennis. A lack of competitiveness has been cited as a reason for the looming decision.
Ellie Nakayama, a 14-year-old Benson High freshman and the sole female football player at Benson says that the connections she's created while on her team is akin to family. “No matter my gender or whoever I am, I’m still there and everyone supports me... It’s important to have community and Benson sports is such a big one. Taking that away is horrible. We need to stand up for what we believe in even if it’s not a set-in-stone thing and say ‘We are going to be here and we are going to keep practicing and practice every day.’”
Fifteen-year-old Eppi White, another student at Benson, echoed similar concerns. “I play football, wrestling, and baseball. I never tried sports before high school and it’s been a great experience through bonding with all of the teams… It’s an experience that I feel everyone should be able to have. Not everyone is going to do sports their entire lives, but it’s a second family and that’s important.”
Although the meeting didn’t designate any agenda items to Benson High School programming cut, Pam Knowles, Portland Public Schools board member and representative for zone 5, briefly touched on the concerns in between impassioned speeches delivered by Benson students and staff. In the address she said, “It’s an interesting dilemma we have—it’s a problem. And we need everyone to help us find solutions. Benson has smaller teams… Sometimes it’s safety issues. Sometimes it’s just a competitive issue. This is an ongoing conversation. There have been no decisions made on this and I think that it’s really important that you continue to be actively involved in the discussion.” She concluded by thanking those in attendance.
The issue of competitiveness has drawn criticism from many members of Benson including Green and Linda McLellan who coached volleyball for 32 years in the district. Green says, “We’re always going to have challenges and struggles. You can start pointing fingers at the respective schools and their programs and saying this one’s not as good as that one and start nitpicking but at the end of the day, the ones that have been around the longest and have been able to produce quality individuals in our own society, sports or not, are all important and valuable.”
McLellan pointed to the lack of resources Benson has had: “There are only a few really competitive schools in the state and those are usually the schools that are high income. So to see them cut the opportunities for minority kids and kids in poverty, it defeats the whole purpose of sports. When they cut the enrollment several years ago, it really impacted the athletic program and we’re regenerating and rejuvenating the programs again. To see it be undercut one more time is unfortunate.”
For several years, PE has only been offered to high school Freshman and personal fitness programs beyond the mandatory year have disappeared altogether. Weight training, explains McLellan, was the only other physical extra curriculum and it will no longer be offered as of the upcoming school year.
During his speech and later in an interview with the Mercury, Steve Curley explained that the level of outcry is due to the historically rocky relationship Benson has had with the district since the early 2000s.
He says that the school choice policy implemented by former superintendent, Vicki Phillips, created a dynamic in the district in which schools are pitted against one another in the fight for resources. He explains, “Schools are funded by how many kids you have. The more kids, the more teachers, the more programs. So in that process we have cut music, for example, and a lot of our programs have shrunk. It’s very destabilizing.”
A trail of similar disruptions has followed including threats to close Benson in 2010, the several years the school had an interim principal, and a similar proposal to cut sports in 2014. Curley and Slaughter questioned the level of expertise and program restructuring executed by Marshall Haskins, Athletic Director of PPS. César Ramirez, a Benson Film and English teacher, called for Haskins to step down in resignation during his address and Slaughter announced that the Benson community will be filing a civil lawsuit against PPS for continued harassment.
“When proposals or ideas of proposals get drafted and different teachers hear about it and it gets confirmed by your principal and board members, it’s not a rumor anymore,” Slaughter says. “[It’s] not ‘it might be happening,’ but ‘it will be happening.’ And I know it’s not on their agenda for today but it’s down the pipe so it’s something we want to make sure we’re attacking right away. I don’t even want to hear about any proposals. I just want to go ahead and nip it in the bud before it happens. Let’s go ahead and get some lawyers out so we can go ahead and let y’all know what we’re doing.”