Dozens of students shared their views on the upcoming high school redesign at a meeting last night hosted by Portland Public Schools. The event attracted middle school and high school students from across the district—most of whom were concerned that the proposed changes would leave them with fewer choices.
The district is planning to turn two or three of its nine neighborhood schools into small “focus option” magnet schools, and the rest into more standardized “community comprehensive” schools. Students would then be required to attend the school in their neighborhood, or apply to a focus school.
Nearly every current high school was represented at the meeting, with two glaring exceptions: Roosevelt, which has been split into three focused academies, and Jefferson, whose North Portland students are some of the poorest in the district. While the redesign is meant to increase socioeconomic and racial equity, the students it’s supposed to help were absent from the meeting.
After a brief slide show outlining the district's vague goals (close the "opportunity gap," increase the graduation rate), students broke into groups of ten for pizza and discussion. The groups then presented their concerns to each other and to Zeke Smith, Superintendent Carole Smith’s Chief of Staff.
“There’s a lot of information missing,” said one group’s representative. “We’re missing an explanation of how the community comprehensive schools can support a broad offering of elective courses.”
Other students echoed this concern, that more standardized schools will impede individual exploration. “We need an independent learning style,” said a Renaissance Arts Academy student from Gresham. “Change won’t create greater demand.”
The rest of the students, who had been instructed to stand up whenever they heard something they agreed with, got a lot of exercise. Some of the most ardent testimony came from students in the Grant cluster. Grant, with over 1,600 students, is considered a “model” school and the prospect of its closure has raised fierce opposition from students and parents.
“The creation of focus schools will compound the flight from what are represented as ‘bad’ schools,” said one student. Some framed their skepticism more bluntly.
“It’s a fact that there are black people in one area and white people in another,” said a student representative. “Diversity will still be a problem.”
What plans there are at this point call for strict limitations on students' ability to transfer out of their neighborhoods. Students feel that tying high school attendance to residence will exacerbate segregation. “I’m living next to similar people who have lives just like me,” said a student representing another group. “This would take away the uniqueness of the schools.”
Zeke Smith acknowledged that segregation is an important factor, but noted that transfer restrictions would increase racial diversity. He cautioned students against judging other schools. “It’s easy to make assumptions about schools that you’re not at,” he said.
The student added that the district’s proposals so far seem “very idealistic…. You’re not going to the high schools,” she told Smith and Board of Education member David Wynde. “We are.”
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