PORTLAND’S POPULATION is booming, and therefore so is enrollment at Portland Public Schools (PPS).
Portland Metro predicts as many as 725,000 new residents could call Portland home in the next two decades. And with all those new people come a lot of new kids—5,000 over the next 10 years, according to the most recent estimates.
With some Portland schools bursting at the seams and others chronically under-enrolled and underfunded, PPS convened a District-wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee (DBRAC) to consider how to best redraw district boundaries to right-size schools. The DBRAC is supposed to make its recommendation to PPS Superintendent Carole Smith by the end of January (just as this issue goes to press), and the school board is expected to vote in February. Implementation of at least some of the changes could begin as early as the 2016-17 school year, according to PPS’ schedule.
But as we approach these deadlines, plenty still seems to be up in the air. At a January 9 community meeting, concerned students and parents testified about problems with the proposed changes, and DBRAC members hashed out five hours’ worth of issues.
One of the issues that continues to arise during this process is inequality.
“If they’re only focusing on the enrollment outcome, PPS is choosing to create separate, and therefore inherently unequal, middle schools,” says Southeast Portland parent Carissa Harrison. “In our area, one middle school will be left wealthier because of the proposed changes, while the other one or two proposed middle schools are intentionally clustering poverty with a half-hearted nod to equity.”
Harrison is among dozens of community members who have expressed concern about equality, and she’s got a reason to speak up.
Historically, redistricting schools has negatively impacted marginalized populations, particularly blacks, Latinos, and children with special academic or physical needs. Studies have shown that redrawing school boundaries often increases segregation and places lower-performing students—the ones who need the most help—in lower-performing schools.
PPS, for its part, appears to be trying to meet the inequality issue head on. District spokesman Jonathan Isaacs says PPS did away with their liberal transfer policy and lottery program so that it’s more difficult for families with means to “flee their neighborhood schools.” He says this redistricting process is different than anything the district has done in the last 30 years.
“The perception is that the affluent community will find a way around not having their students affected by a redistricting process,” Isaacs says. “But the changes we’re making include tracking enrollment by race, while focusing on the schools that historically have a higher population of minority students.”
“We’ve done this before—the reconfigurations. And kids of color, in poverty, or with special needs are the ones who are going to fall through the cracks.”
Sheila Warren, whose children and grandchildren have attended Portland public schools, founded the Portland Parent Union in an attempt to fight what she calls a “broken system.”
“Every time there’s a change, no matter what it is, it impacts the North and Northeast Portland schools the most,” Warren says. “We’ve done this before—the reconfigurations. And kids of color, in poverty, or with special needs are the ones who are going to fall through the cracks.”
Portland business owner Chloe Eudaly, whose teenage son communicates non-verbally and gets around with a wheelchair, has a lot of experience with advocating for equality in PPS for her son. She says he’s been shuffled from school to school all his life, and that the redistricting process is especially hard on kids who need special accommodations, are low-income, or people of color.
“Moving is hard on all kids, but even more so for the kids who are most vulnerable,” Eudaly says. “So when I hear white, middle-class parents complaining about only having to move once because of redistricting, it’s hard to be very sympathetic.”
Warren echoed Eudaly’s thoughts, saying the district “gives crumbs” to kids of color or with disabilities when redistricting. She says she watched as PPS closed schools and moved kids around, and feels it was always on the east side of the river, where the neighborhoods aren’t so, well, white.
Isaacs says that’s not the case this time, pointing out there are more boundary changes proposed on the west side of Portland, and that the school board is tracking the number of students of color who will have to be moved.
“It’s just not possible to make everybody happy,” he says. “This is our sixth straight year of enrollment growth and it’s a real opportunity to get the grade configurations right to fit the buildings.”
For 13 years, enrollment at PPS was on a steady decline. At the same time, budget shortfalls prompted the district to start dipping into reserves. By 2002, PPS was operating at enough of a deficit that it had to start closing schools; between 2003 and 2013, PPS closed or consolidated 23 schools. During that time, 45 schools had their boundaries redrawn and 37 had their grades restructured, often going from K-5 to K-8.
“It had a really negative impact on the more vulnerable kids when the district rushed to convert to K-8,” Eudaly says. “They’re shipped around between schools on a whim, which really weakens their place in the school community.”
Now, Isaacs says, over-enrollment has many of those K-8 schools over capacity. By redrawing boundaries and redistributing students, PPS hopes to right-size schools and diversify their populations. He says the district has done months of outreach, specifically to low-income families and families of color, to find out how to best accommodate their needs during the redistricting process. One meeting that drew about 200 families was conducted in Spanish with an English interpreter.
“The board is likely to make some boundary changes that go into effect as soon as next school year,” Isaacs says. “But after receiving a ton of community input, we know that right-sizing neighborhood schools so they’re fully enrolled is going to be the greatest advantage to our all our families.”