Parents connected to Jefferson High School pushed back Wednesday night on plans from Portland Public Schools to send students 11 miles away to a temporary home for the three years it will take to rebuild the historic North Portland campus.
Jefferson is the latest Portland high school planned for a thorough renovation — and anticipation and concern that comes with a costly project promising to be transformative in the long term, but disruptive over the next few years.
Builders typically have two options when embarking on large-scale construction projects involving schools in active use. Students can sometimes remain on-site while the new facility is built around the students, as occurred in Portland at Lincoln and Roosevelt high schools. Alternatively, students may be relocated to another location during construction, which PPS did by sending students, in turn, from Franklin, Grant, McDaniel and Benson high schools to the Marshall campus at the southeastern edge of the district.
The plan for Jefferson would again be to bus several hundred students to Marshall.
Voters made what’s projected to be a $300 million renovation of Jefferson High School possible in 2020 when they approved a $1.2 billion capital construction bond. The district has been discussing design goals and guidelines for the high school for a few years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that building experts concluded the construction demands of the Jefferson rebuild would require students to be moved off campus.
“The selected general contractor brought a level of expertise which revealed that, due to structural and safety requirements, the cost of keeping students on campus would greatly exceed earlier estimates,” the district said in a message to families in the Jefferson High School area. The email was signed by four administrators: Senior Director of the Office of School Modernization Marina Cresswell, Jefferson High principal Drake Shelton, Assistant Superintendent Margaret Calvert and Chief of Schools Jon Franco.
District leaders looked at three possible destinations for the students, but the two options nearby in North Portland — Portland Community College and the Kenton Elementary School building — were deemed unsuitable. Using a number of available classrooms at the nearby PCC-Cascades campus was ruled out because the campus “is not permitted to be used exclusively as a high school” under city zoning. District officials said the zoning “could take years” to change. Kenton was considered too small and lacking in high school program amenities, such as science labs and athletic fields, to work. That left the Marshall campus as the only viable option for students to attend during the three-year construction project.
At a meeting Wednesday night in the Jefferson High cafeteria, before the construction design team could begin their presentations, parents voiced objections to plans to send students to Marshall. The informal meeting was recorded, but few attendees identified themselves as they spoke up.
“We all want to know what’s the solution to keep our babies, our Black babies right here,” one member of the audience said as he pressed meeting presenters to respond to questions rather than share PowerPoint slides focused on costs and project details.
Jefferson’s current building is considered to be far under capacity, with fewer than 600 students in a school large enough to hold two or three times as many students. One factor is that students living near Jefferson can opt to attend other high schools — Grant, McDaniel or Roosevelt depending on the family address. PPS has some unique programs to draw students to Jefferson, such as a dual-credit arrangement with PCC across North Killingsworth St., but families say that the district tends to neglect the largely Black and Latino high school in North Portland.
Principal Shelton noted that Black students regularly enroll at other available high schools and that part of the goal of the rebuilt school is to increase enrollment at Jefferson High. Parents argued that moving students away for three school years — from fall 2024 to fall 2027 — would have the opposite effect.
Parents repeatedly interrupted presentations during the hour-and-45-minute meeting. They asked the basis for construction cost estimates; they challenged why Jefferson had to wait to be rebuilt until after most of the district’s other high schools had been overhauled; and they pointed out problematic details, such as the district-wide shortage of bus drivers interfering with the ability to get students to and from Marshall.
After being pressed to answer whether the decision had already been made to move Jefferson students off-campus to Marshall, the district’s head of school modernization, Marina Cresswell, said “yes.” Several parents responded by taking steps to leave the meeting, while most remained and continued questioning the decision to force students out of North Portland.
“Who do we need to talk to about this decision being final?” questioned another audience member.
Another parent asked, “What can stop it?”
A Jefferson student said if she’d known that she was going to be moved to Marshall for the next school year, she would have made plans to complete her diploma through classes at nearby Portland Community College instead.
“It’s unfair — and you all know it’s unfair,” another parent said, accusing the district of interacting differently with a school community that’s predominantly people of color than it does with other school communities.
Parents repeatedly pressed district officials to explain why families were led to believe that students were going to be allowed to stay at Jefferson during construction, only to have that change in the last few weeks. Cresswell told parents that the difficulties in keeping students on campus were only discovered as contractors took a closer look at the building.
“We did everything we could to keep kids in the building,” Cresswell said. “To keep kids here, we were going to have to support a four-story unreinforced masonry building… and the costs of doing that, and to keep kids safe, was so great… on top of other costs associated with having to move kids around, which is not a great experience either.”
Other parents suggested modifications that administrators said couldn’t work because they would delay the completion of the project and therefore would increase costs.
As the scheduled ending time of the meeting approached, Principal Shelton agreed with parents who were calling for further involvement of district officials who make final decisions.
“We got to have another discussion — not presentation, discussion,” Shelton said.