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Will Growing Enrollment Force Portland To Reopen Neighborhood Schools?

OPB | Aug. 21, 2014 10:45 p.m. | Updated: Aug. 22, 2014 10:41 a.m. | Portland

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How many controversial topics can Oregon’s largest school district handle at one time?

Portland Public is already looking to overhaul neighborhood school boundaries and policies governing where students can transfer. And now, a painful chapter of district history is resurfacing.

Neighborhood schools that closed, over the protests of parents, may open again.

Humboldt Elementary School is now closed and being used for surplus storage and other administrative use.

Humboldt Elementary School is now closed and being used for surplus storage and other administrative use.

Aparna Vidyasagar / OPB

Portland schools are in the middle of a turnaround, according to district enrollment director, Judy Brennan.

“We’re a growing enrollment district after being a declining enrollment district for many, many years,” Brennan says.

The district shrank by 8,000 students, between the early 1990s and early 2000s. Demographers thought back then, that Portland’s school enrollment would bottom-out and stay relatively flat.

State revenue was falling short, then, too.  So between 2002 and 2012, the Portland school board voted to close 17 schools, against stiff opposition from parents. At a hearing in 2005, Sandi Hodge defended Edwards Elementary School.  

“We’ve been told that closing our school is in the best educational interests of our children. Edwards has been rated exceptional two years in a row. It doesn’t get any better,” Hodge said at the time.

Other parents questioned the accuracy of the enrollment forecasts. They saw strollers in their neighborhoods, and said schools were poised for growth. Ten years later, experts say they might have been right.

“In some cases, certainly, they were right,” says Charles Rynerson, the demographer at Portland State University who provides enrollment forecasts to Portland Public Schools.

“It turns out Fall of 2006, is when elementary enrollment bottomed out, and it’s been growing every year since. So, there’s a new paradigm now,”Rynerson says.

Population and enrollment forecasts are inherently complex and difficult, according to Rynerson and Judy Brennan at PPS.

“Anything more than five years out … you’re planning for children who have yet to be born, so that’s what makes this really challenging work,” Brennan says.

But in this case, Rynerson says the birth rate wasn’t the problem.

“The number of births in the district has not increased. It’s basically flat since about 1997 — that’s the really interesting thing.”

What Rynerson finds “interesting” is not the number of babies, but where young families are raising them. For years, couples tended to move out of cities to the suburbs to raise their kids. Rynerson says families here stayed in Portland neighborhoods. He believes one reason is mothers were more settled and older.

“In the early 1990’s, more than 60 percent of the births in Portland Public Schools were to women under age 30. Now, two-thirds of the births are to women age 30 and over,” he explained.

The latest analyses expect that pattern to continue and for PPS to grow. A report to the school board last June says the district could grow by almost 13,000 students over the next 15 years. But Rynerson says that was based on a simple formula of housing units to students.

“But it’s really difficult to just look at the number of housing units and say how many school children are going to be coming out of it.”

Rynerson says growth plans from the city of Portland call for more apartments and those tend to house fewer children.

Rynerson forecasts an increase of more like 6000 students out to 2028.

Even Rynerson’s lower forecast is like adding three more large high schools - or turning back the clock to the late 1990s, before so many schools closed.

District enrollment director Judy Brennan says meeting the growth could mean re-opening buildings, but doing so, carefully.

The ghosts of cleaned up graffiti remain on the brick walls of Kellogg.

The ghosts of cleaned up graffiti remain on the brick walls of Kellogg.

Aparna Vidyasagar / OPB

“The closure process in communities was extremely, well, really devastating for some neighborhoods. And so the potential for bringing kids back, and bringing those buildings back to life, is a wonderful thing. Again, we need to make sure we do it right,” she said.

The buildings the district closed aren’t entirely vacant. They have alternative education programs, early childhood services; one is a private school. Some are used for storage.

It wouldn’t be simple — or cheap — to open them as traditional public schools again.

Portland voters approved a $482 million capital bond two years ago to rebuild and renovate school buildings. The district has managed to do small capital projects without bond money.

But bond money is necessary when it comes to big projects, like last summer’s Wilson High School roof replacement. Dozens of buildings are getting new roofs, seismic improvements, and other work done.

Wilcox Elementary School is now used for administrative purposes. Columbia Regional Program is housed within the building.

Wilcox Elementary School is now used for administrative purposes. Columbia Regional Program is housed within the building.

Aparna Vidyasagar / OPB

But schools that were closed in recent years won’t be getting that work done, even though they probably could use it. That’s because the district didn’t earmark bond funds for closed schools, or for new ones, for that matter.

Charles Rynerson at PSU says his office started telling the district five years ago that enrollment was on the rise.

“As years roll by, and we keep getting that bigger and bigger kindergarten coming in, our forecasts have nudged up a little bit. But we had been forecasting increasing enrollment for the last several years.”

School officials say they have more than enough work to do at buildings that serve students now.

PPS communications chief, Jon Isaacs says years of budget cutting have taken a toll on buildings. He says it’ll take years to turn things around.

“The plan is to rebuild and fully modernize the entire system within the next 30 years, hopefully with an ongoing investment from Portland taxpayers,” Isaacs says.

That investment would be needed anyway to deal with aging school buildings. Only now, the district knows it also has to provide for thousands more students, in the school years to come.

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