The Portland Public Schools board voted Tuesday night to close down the neighborhood school program at Lent Elementary, shifting the school to dual language immersion only next year.
The decision was a delayed last piece in the district’s plan to shift neighborhood boundaries for 20 southeast Portland schools. The board voted last May to approve the boundary changes but delayed taking action on Lent Elementary, citing the need for more community engagement. Lent K-5 currently houses two programs: One is taught in English for students living in the surrounding neighborhood; the other is a bilingual program in Spanish and English that families access through the district’s enrollment lottery.
Starting next year, Lent students in the school’s neighborhood-based English scholars program will instead attend Marysville K-5, a mile and a half to the west. Dual-language students will continue at Lent, joined by dual-language students from Bridger Elementary. Incoming Lent kindergartners and older students “with Spanish-language experience” will be able to enroll in the immersion program without having to enter the lottery.
“Having programs co-located in a building often leads to isolation and programmatic inequities,” said PPS Chief of Schools Jon Franco. “That was the rationale, and that currently is the rationale.”
On Tuesday night, District officials shared that, given the extra time they had for community engagement, they have reached out to families via mailers, phone calls, and in-person meetings over the last three months.
They heard from 30 parents or guardians, representing one-third of English scholar students at Lent. Engagement efforts did not include students in the dual-language program and meetings were not recorded.
Families who did engage expressed concerns about transportation and child care at Marysville, and district officials reported a “prevailing” interest in staying at Lent Elementary.
Staff and community members expressed concern that engagement efforts were not sufficient.
Stefania Ramirez Velazquez is a fifth-grade dual-language immersion teacher at Lent. She said students, especially those in the dual-language immersion program, weren’t given an opportunity to share their thoughts on the change.
“Our families are relying on the board and the district to ensure that they’re being heard and that the steps being taken are done in its fullest capacity,” Ramirez Velazquez said during public comment before the school board vote. “It feels like the decision has already been made before even listening to our community, and listening to our families, and especially listening to our students.”
Oregon state Rep. Khanh Pham represents the area including Lent and has a second grader at Bridger who will be enrolling in the dual-language program at Lent next year.
Pham sent a letter to the board last week and spoke at the meeting Tuesday, asking for more time to engage the community.
She said she has heard from parents who were not surveyed, and that families speaking languages other than English, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian, did not show up at community meetings. In her message to the school board she attached a student letter from last year that included the signatures of 176 students.
“We are against this change,” the students wrote last spring. “We want to stay as a whole school because Lent is a special place.”
Officials with the district said they called every family and shared three updates with families over September and October.
As they pushed the board to adopt their recommendation, officials stressed the ripple effect of delaying the decision again, saying that staffing efforts connected to the boundary changes would be negatively impacted. They pointed to achievement score disparities between the students in the neighborhood English scholars program and the dual-language program, as well as enrollment differences. Students in the neighborhood program had lower test scores, especially in math, and enrollment in the neighborhood program has declined, though it appears similar to the number of students in Spanish immersion.
Board member Eilidh Lowery said she was voting yes because of the stated board goals to improve student achievement.
“Looking at those numbers … I really feel like we need to do something different for our students in the English Scholars program,” Lowery said.
During her public comment, Rep. Pham expressed both safety and academic concerns. She noted that to get to Marysville, students may have to cross I-205, East 92nd, and East 82nd Ave. - a major artery with a history of pedestrian fatalities. Pham also warned that chronic absenteeism could worsen if students have a longer commute.
“I worry that in trying to help these students, we might be unintentionally creating new obstacles to their academic achievement,” Pham shared.
The board approved the move 5-2, with vice chair Gary Hollands and board member Julia Brim-Edwards voting no.
Brim-Edwards questioned the connection between achievement scores as a reason for the move and expressed hesitation about the plan in general.
“I’m concerned that we’re being asked to vote on something with a promise that’s been made to the community,” Brim-Edwards said, citing questions around transportation and child care.
District officials said they were committed to providing both services for families that move to the new school, but offered few details.
The change is set to take place next fall. Student representative Byronie McMahon, who also voted no, asked district and school officials to make the transition as smooth as possible for affected families. “The important thing will be to ensure that every student is directly —we talk to them directly, we make sure that they feel comfortable moving to a different school … because it’s a huge change, it is.”