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Benson Polytechnic: Limited By District, Desired By Students, Employers

Portland Public Schools will mail letters to hundreds of parents Friday letting them know whether their child can change high schools.

Portland’s career-oriented high school, Benson Polytechnic, depends entirely on transfers for its enrollment. The district has limited transfers there in recent years.

Supporters of Benson Polytechnic are pushing for changes.

Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, at 67 percent. The figure is lower for Oregon kids from poverty.

Benson Polytechnic graduates 83 percent of its students from poverty. That’s tops in Portland and one of the best graduation rates in Oregon, among schools with lots of kids from poor backgrounds.

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

Rob Manning/OPB

Carol Campbell is Benson’s principal.

“It is partly because students want to come here – and they specifically choose the programs that we have, because that’s what we have,” Campbell says.

Students have to choose to attend Benson. They must fill out an application, and go through the district-run lottery process to get in. Campbell says the school’s hands-on career programs are a big draw.

But Benson is not available to as many students as it used to be. Two years ago, the school board overhauled high schools and capped Benson’s freshman class at 250. Benson’s overall enrollment has dropped by 100 students since then.

Benson students spend their first two years exploring different industries. They focus in as juniors and seniors.

Deshawna Niblack is a Benson 10th grader.

Deshawna Niblack is a Benson 10th grader.

Deshawna Niblack is a Benson 10th grader. She’s admiring an ice scraper she made in plastics class.

“You had to go to the machine over there, make it carved out from the computer, then you had to go over to the bandsaw, saw it — try not to chop your fingers off — and then you had to go over to the sander….”

Niblack says she came to Benson thinking she’d focus on communications. But she likes working with her hands, and has switched to manufacturing.

“Getting used to everything, it’s like — I realized that not only guys can do it, but girls can do it, too.”

For a handful of students, attending Benson can mean work on a company’s shop floor before they graduate.

On this Friday morning, two dozen Benson juniors and seniors are interviewing for apprenticeship positions at four manufacturing companies – Vigor, Tice Industries, PCC Structural, and Blount International.

Leaders of some of those same companies signed a letter recently, calling on school district or state authorities to open Benson up to more students.

Benson’s alumni association chair Rob Johns

Benson’s alumni association chair Rob Johns

Rob Manning/OPB

Benson’s alumni association chair, Rob Johns, is leading the effort to crack the 250-freshmen student cap.

“If kids have made decisions to leave their neighborhood schools, and create new networks with kids from all over the district - that by itself is a very, very mature decision to make. Why not let them follow that?”

The reason Portland Public Schools capped Benson’s enrollment has little to do with Benson. It’s about the comprehensive neighborhood schools students leave behind.

Judy Brennan supervises enrollment for the district.

“Until we have all of our comprehensives around the right size, we’re not looking to grow any of our programs – and that’s not just Benson. We’re just not looking to grow other schools, until we have all of our comprehensives close to that target size.”

The three high schools that lost the most students to Benson have grown since the enrollment cap was established. In two years, Roosevelt High added 145 kids; Madison almost 200 students. Jefferson grew, too

Graduation rates have improved at all three of those high schools, but none are close to Benson’s.

Principal Carol Campbell contends Benson is a great school at whatever size. But she says if the district is concerned about schools that aren’t big enough to provide a full program – it should be worried about Benson, too.

“Now we’ve become a — not a neighborhood school, a focus option school — that is struggling to maintain enough of an enrollment to keep all of the programs that we have.”

A smaller student body means less funding to support programs. At Benson, that’s meant fewer career pathways – and fewer resources for what’s left.

Benson construction students work to build a house, over the year. But the completion timeline to finish the house has slipped from two to three years.

Some programs are largely gone. Where Benson’s architecture program used to be, the district runs a psychiatric treatment program. Other shop areas have become office space.

Back at the district office, Judy Brennan says there are no plans to change Benson’s enrollment.

But, she says the district studies enrollment every year.

“We do have more school-aged kids every year — they tend to be at the lower grades, and it’s going to be a period of time before we have a high school population that’s large enough to allow widespread growth across the system.”

Benson supporters worry that by the time that happens, the paired-back programs at the polytechnic high school won’t hold the same appeal for students looking for a career-focused education.

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