Pressure to relieve crowded schools on Portland’s west side is revealing divisions and doubts in Oregon’s largest school district. Every few days, Portland Public Schools seems to upset a new group of west-side parents with a new set of suggestions. Meanwhile, east side changes are on pause, despite some parents lobbying for fast action.
Parents on Portland’s west side have warned that proposed boundary changes would disrupt school programs and divide communities.
Business owner Mike Roach’s big issue?
“Traffic. Oh my goodness,” Roach said at a recent meeting at Wilson High School. “The proposed boundary change would create carmaggedon — that’s with a ‘c’ not a ‘k’ — every morning.”
Parent Brian Unflat said the new proposals may be coming quickly — but the problems have been around a long time.
“The situation we’re currently faced with stems from years of neglect and inadequate planning for the increased population in Portland, especially in the northwest and southwest areas of Portland,” Unflat said.
Chapman Elementary School is crowded now, and expected to get worse, as new condos in the Pearl District fill up. Southwest schools are pushing capacity, too.
East Side Asked To Wait
But when the district boundary committee started work a year ago, crowded schools were a pressing issue, not only at Chapman, but also on the east side, at Beverly Cleary School.
There are multiple problems in schools on the east side of town, including under-enrollment in the middle grades, which has resulted in a lack of program offerings. Portland Public wants to concentrate middle-grade students on the east side, so that it’s easier to provide a range of classes.
At this point, decisions on the east side will wait a while, with actual changes waiting until fall 2017. The west side could see changes this fall.
“And basically the reason there’s a difference between the east side and west side, is because we ran out of time,” said Kim Wilson to colleagues at the most recent meeting of the District-wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee (DBRAC).
Wilson remembers DBRAC asking the district for clarity months ago. They wanted guidance on possible re-structuring into elementary and middle schools.
“We waited and we waited,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the committee also asked the district about the future of magnet - or “focus option” - programs, with the same result.
“We waited and we waited.”
At last in the fall, the district offered two draft scenarios. The west side was mostly boundary changes. The east side was a seismic shift away from K-8 schools into elementary and middle schools.
Factor in the complexity of the east side and the pressing crowding issues on the west side, and the west side changes are getting priority.
But Kim Wilson, who is also a middle-grade teacher on the east side, is in no rush to overhaul schools by this fall.
“I hear the call for immediate action for our middle school students. And I completely agree. However, I do have trepidation about not doing that conversion well, because we rush it,” Wilson said.
Many parents and district staff remember the troubled conversion to K-8 schools a decade ago.
Changes have happened especially frequently in North Portland - a trend very familiar to committee member, Margaret Calvert. She’s principal at Jefferson High - the epicenter of North Portland school changes.
“Historically, part of what’s happened over time, is that certain parts of the city have been reconfigured and redesigned more frequently than others,” Calvert reminded members of the school district boundary committee.
Communities Push Back, Offer Solutions
Now west-side parents, who have seen less school restructuring in recent years, are pushing against boundary changes. And some east-side parents are saying changes should come before fall 2017.
“To not have anything in here about how - I’ll be local and immediate - about the Roseway Heights community and where they go for their K-5 program, when we are getting into the details quite possibly - the west side knows exactly what’s happening, seems a grave omission,” said Principal Sarah Lewins. “And I have to go back to my community and say, ‘Well, I don’t know where you’re going.’”
District officials have said they want the boundary committee to focus on east-side changes this spring, even if changes wouldn’t come for another year.
With so much uncertainty, parents are proposing their own solutions. North Portland parent Gabrielle Mercedes Bolivar brought a community proposal to a recent meeting.
“We know that there’s education opportunity gaps,” Bolivar said. “We know that there’s an immediate solution that we can provide to provide comprehensive, equitable programming in our middle grades - especially within North and inner Northeast Portland. So it’s disappointing to find out, after all this time, we’re not going to be on the receiving end of equitable changes.”
Advisory committee member Scott Bailey is familiar with parent proposals. He said they’re worth taking seriously.
“I think with a couple hours of work of vetting those, that we could have a pretty credible proposal in terms of alignment for northeast, north, and the west side,” Bailey said. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy. But I think the community is way ahead of us, frankly, at this point.”
There are some big changes being explored involving the east side for this fall - but they’re really fixes for problems on the west side. Parent Brad Nelson recently called for details about staff and committee discussions.
“They said that they would be looking at scenarios that would send a portion of Chapman Elementary kids east of the river to help reduce crowding on the west side,” Nelson said.
The idea of delaying changes on the east side - except, possibly for those created by moving students from the west side - doesn’t sit well with some parents who are being asked to wait.
“They’re talking about implications on the west side for moving Chapman, which is why they’re looking east,” Bolivar said. “There’s implications for moving to the east side.”
Any actual changes are still a few steps away. The advisory committee needs to finish its official advice to Superintendent Carole Smith. She has to make recommendations to the school board. And then the school board has some big decisions to make for this fall - and the years to come.