Portland, Ore., may return to neighborhood schools model

For years, urban schools have struggled with segregation. When busing failed, many lured students out of racially isolated neighborhoods with irresistible programs in theater, technology and advanced academics at schools across town.

Here in Portland, as in many other cities, the plan backfired: White, middle-class parents adept at school bureaucracy got their children into the best schools. Poor families got left behind in ever-shrinking, underfunded and poorly performing neighborhood schools.

Some of them, like Jefferson High School in northeast Portland, grew so emaciated that African American and white families alike were running for the exits.

Now, in a move that in another era and another city might have been seen as segregationist, Portland is preparing to abandon its liberal cross-town transfer policy and go back to the once-discredited model of neighborhood schools.

An ambitious high school redesign under review by the school board proposes to set up a network of eight “core” schools in neighborhoods rich and poor across the city. The schools would be distinguished by their sameness: Every school would offer a full college-prep curriculum; every school, even in the well-to-do neighborhoods where students have supposedly never needed learning aids, would also offer a full menu of academic support.

Jefferson High School expects to nearly triple its enrollment over the next few years, substantially expand its budget and offer students the chance to earn a college associate degree during high school.

“For the first time, every student in our district, no matter his or her ZIP Code, will have guaranteed access to a strong and broad core curriculum that is held in common,” Supt. Carole Smith said as she introduced the administration’s proposed redesign to the school board, which is scheduled to vote on it June 21.

The irony of trying to break through the racial and economic boundaries of neighborhoods by opening up enrollments citywide was that schools actually became less diverse.

Because state funding is based on student enrollment, schools like Jefferson that have progressively leached students to other schools have entered death spirals — the fewer students enrolled, the more elective courses had to be axed, prompting even more students to flee.

This year, Jefferson has just 427 students, with three out of four students in its own neighborhood enrolled somewhere else. It offers few foreign language classes, no advanced placement courses, no math beyond pre-calculus, no art studio. Only 39.8% of its students have met basic state math standards over the last two years.

In a city with an openly gay mayor that prides itself on diversity and equality of opportunity, it has been a mark of shame that Jefferson is the only high school in Oregon with an African American majority.

Jefferson became the city’s “African American” high school at a time when the northeast Portland neighborhood around it housed a large part of the city’s small black community; more recently, many African American families have been forced out by higher housing prices and the neighborhood is far more diverse.

“Just getting back to having our schools reflect the neighborhoods that they serve would be a step in the right direction for us,” district spokesman Matt Shelby said.

School districts these days are legally prevented from drawing up boundaries based explicitly on race. Portland drew its new model by examining the range of poor families across the district, whose numbers have historically included high numbers of minorities and immigrants.

In Portland, only 49% of African American students and 40% of Latino students graduate in four years, compared with 63% of white students. With the proposed new plan, school officials say that equality of opportunity will no longer be a determining factor in those numbers.

“We’re going to have to go door-to-door, have some meetings. Because the perception is, Jefferson is still Jefferson. It’s a bad school, and I’m not sending my kids to school with ‘those kids,’ so to speak,” said Ricky Allen, Jefferson’s vice principal. “But now, when kids say they don’t want to come to Jefferson High School because they ‘don’t offer certain courses,’ they won’t be able to say that anymore.”

The schools have also launched a citywide effort, know as a Courageous Conversation About Race, to examine the degree to which traditional attitudes and low expectations have contributed to poor student performance.

The timing is crucial, said Glenn Singleton, president of the San Francisco-based Pacific Educational Group, which administers the race conversation program, because Portland is a city with a relatively small adult minority population, while the schools, a window into the future, have a population that is only 54% white.

“It’s important to recognize that the struggle over what to do with Jefferson mirrors a larger struggle over Portland,” Singleton said. “What is the city going to become?”