Two weeks ago, the Maryland-based Education Week—an education trade publication—released results from a massive study of graduation rates. Not surprisingly, the news was not good for Portland: According to the study, Oregon has the shameful distinction of graduating the lowest percentage of African American teens from high school. While the national average is barely over 50 percent, Oregon has sunk to a dismal 25 percent.
In the weeks following the study, state officials reacted with a mix of denial and arrogance. And, it turns out that their dismay and denial were partially warranted: It appears that someone failed to submit correct numbers (the study didn't account for about 700 African American students who did graduate). Once the new numbers were crunched, the graduation rate for African Americans in Oregon is more like 57 percent—yes, (just) above the national average.
While the adjusted stats are less shocking, the numbers are still shameful. Graduating one out of two African American students is hardly a passing grade.
But what has been just as concerning as the numbers from the study has been the reaction to it. Spokespersons from the Portland Public School administration immediately refuted the numbers, but barely said anything accepting responsibility. Instead of denial and defensiveness, school board members need to admit that there is a deep-seated problem and consider what other cities are doing.
Yet, so far the "solutions" suggested by the school board have been absurd and patronizing. This past spring, the board voted to require students at Jefferson to wear uniforms. (The idea has since been dropped, thanks to community pressure.) It's important to note that Jefferson is the only predominantly black high school in town (70 percent of the North Portland school is African American), and the only school singled out for this dress code. The board also recommended the idea of placing boys and girls in separate schools.
So far, the board's approach has been diametrically opposed to what has been proven successful and what the rest of the country is accomplishing to remedy problems for minority students. While national trends in education have favored charter schools, creativity, and choices for the students, the school board has decided a clampdown on students' personal rights is the best approach.
About the only person who has publicly spoken up about this poor graduation rate is Oregon Senator Avel Gordly, who has long been a steady voice for minority issues. In an interview on OPB, she rightly called the dismal graduation rate "a state of emergency."
More politicians and leaders need to speak up. The time has come and gone for politeness. The bleak graduation rates are an indicator that our city is becoming more and more divided along racial lines. While these problems are not unique to Portland, it does seem as if Portland is unique in its continuing denial of race issues.