Building Problems Surface 2 Years After Portland’s Franklin High School Renovation

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Aug. 5, 2019 11:32 p.m.

After two years and a $113 million renovation, the new Franklin High School opened in Fall 2017.


When senior Abby Emrich and more than 1,700 other students entered “new” Franklin her junior year, she thought it looked beautiful — like a college.

Franklin High School in Southeast Portland.

Franklin High School in Southeast Portland.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

“It makes me feel important to walk around the campus,” Emrich said.

But for her and others in the Franklin community, the building’s appearance doesn’t reflect the inside.

“It is kind of a little bit misleading when you go in the inside,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff wrong with the inside of it.”

Teachers say the building’s problems make it harder to teach and connect with students. As PPS continues to spend millions in taxpayer dollars renovating schools, Franklin teachers and students hope the district learns from one of its first renovation projects in decades.

"Rocky From The Start"

Kate Moore has been a teacher at Franklin for 10 years. She teaches social studies and language arts for all grades, so she meets students as nervous ninth graders and sees them grow in four years to become confident seniors.

In Moore’s opinion, “old” Franklin had its problems — mice, chipping paint and technology issues among them. At 102 years old, some of that is to be expected.

Today, “new” Franklin includes a new performing arts center, a media center and elevators to make the whole facility ADA accessible.

When the school reopened in 2017, the building wasn’t done — and Moore was concerned.

“There were areas in the new building that right away it was like, this isn’t going to work very well,” Moore said, calling it "rocky from the start."

She says the school is louder than before and there aren’t enough bathrooms for the growing population. Some of the problems concerned teachers before the building opened — like a shift toward sharing classrooms.

After class, Moore has to pack up to make the room available for the next teacher, so she can’t always focus on students if they have questions. Moore feels like she can’t connect to her students like she used to.

“My classroom used to be my space and my students' space,” Moore said. “Now I don’t have that.”

Six teachers OPB spoke to said that while the school looks great, there are negative impacts. Teachers feel isolated, rolling their materials from classroom to classroom.

Instead of a single classroom, most teachers may have two rooms, plus a cubicle in an office with other teachers. Having multiple places, though, makes teachers feel stretched and detached.

Spanish teacher Marty Perez says he used to do more of his work at school before the renovation.

“I feel like there’s no proper domain that I could call my own other than my cubicle desk,” Perez said. “Sometimes it’s easier to get work done at home.”

With the renovations, teachers said they don’t connect with staff outside of their subject areas anymore. And although teachers were included in the design process, some teachers did not feel listened to.

“Our number one focus is on kids and making it the best educational experience possible for kids,” teacher Karen Polis said. “It’s when the building gets in the way of that, that we are the most concerned.”

Those feelings and concerns are reflected in a list OPB obtained of teacher comments shortly after the school reopened.

The list is more than six pages long. Teachers and staff share concerns about safety, technology and school climate.

“I don’t think I want to teach anymore,” more than one teacher said.

“Lack of training and commitment to special education,” others said.

“We were promised a lot that isn’t here” was another comment from teachers.

And while some issues have been resolved in the two years, there are new ones.

Mold, Missing Tiles, Damage Mar New Franklin

Walking through the mostly-empty school this summer, you can see water stains on a white wall. Paint crumbles onto the stairs leading to the basement.

In front of an elevator, tiles are missing from the floor.

And in a bathroom next to the cafeteria, social studies teacher Karen Polis points out the drywall peeling behind sinks.


“We’ve got a sink that’s mounted directly onto the wall and its starting to pull away,” Polis said.

In a larger bathroom stall, there’s a small wooden square on the wall surrounded by graffiti. Polis says the board wasn’t there previously.

In July, tiles are missing on the first floor at Franklin High School.

In July, tiles are missing on the first floor at Franklin High School.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

“Kids were coming in and opening the [bathroom stall] door, and even if they’re not being aggressive would hit this and it created a hole,” Polis said. “At one point there was like an 'Elf on the Shelf' kind of situation — a little doll or paper doll hanging out in the hole. And I'm like, well that's creative!”

Polis and several other teachers also mentioned a computer lab inside the school’s new media center. It’s full of computers, but the lab hasn’t been used for at least a year. Mold from a water leak made the classroom unhealthy.

“There’s 30+ computers that your students don’t have access to,” Polis said.

Portland Public Schools is aware of these issues.

“We’re replacing all of those,” PPS Chief Operating Officer Dan Jung said of the tiles in front of the elevator. “Those are getting taken care of right now.”

With the computer lab, Jung says the water leak during renovation was unexpected.

“Water intrusion isn’t always a common issue, but something’s always going to come up,” Jung said. “It’s really important that we identify what it is and take action to fix it.”

He says PPS hired a historic preservation firm to do an assessment of the problem and identify the cause and that’s been completed. But there’s no date for when the lab will be back online.

And now that the Franklin project is done, any problems add to a lengthy list of district maintenance problems.

Jung says the district received 15,000 work orders last year.

“There’s definitely a lot of work and the teams work very hard to try and keep up with everything,” Jung said. “There’s always challenges and resources and making sure that we’re able to address everything as quick as we would like to do.”

Franklin's Flawed Design

Beyond building function problems, students and teachers have questions about the way the school was designed.

In an era when students are taught lockdown drills to respond to an armed intruder at school, senior Abby Emrich questions having glass walls on Franklin’s second floor. She says having a class in a room along that hallway last year caused her stress.

“I had an English class in that main hallway,” Emrich said. “If there’s any kind of shooter or anything, it’s not covered.”

The design for the school included student engagement areas meant to provide additional space for students in a class, with a teacher able to supervise both the classroom and the other area.

But in practice, they're impractical and potentially unsafe. One student space in the school’s basement is out-of-view to any classroom — and this causes concern for teachers like Polis.

“We aren't using them as intended because you obviously don't want to leave students unsupervised in an area and you can't be in two places at one time,” Polis said.

Several of the teachers OPB spoke with mentioned technology and Wi-Fi issues in the school.

“I expected more tech and I expected the Wi-Fi to be really incredible and that has been a big problem,” English teacher Pam Garrett said. “It is the kids’ way of working in the world and that becomes really difficult when you can’t depend on the Wi-Fi.”

With future projects, Garrett and other teachers hope architects and designers think differently about how they engage school communities.

Franklin — First Of Many Expensive PPS Projects

In the list of concerns Franklin teachers shared after the school reopening, they included concerns not just as school employees but as taxpayers.

“If no one listens to our concerns about this building, the same things will be issues in other new construction,” a line in the document reads. "We have real concerns as taxpayers about these issues continuing to go forward into new facilities.”

The Franklin High remodel was just one of the first PPS has done in decades. The funding came from a $482 million bond voters approved in 2012 to improve schools. An even bigger bond for $790 million passed in 2017 focused on health and safety as well as four more school modernizations and renovations. And next year, the district will likely ask voters to pass another bond for more school construction projects.

“If the district wants to utilize their … taxpayers’ dollar to the best of their ability, I would highly encourage them to hear the voices of teachers that have gone through these renovations to figure out the do's and the don’ts,” Spanish teacher Marty Perez said.

With all projects, district leaders say there are lessons learned, and shared a handful of insights based on projects at three PPS schools including Franklin. They include replacing old windows instead of refurbishing them and using stronger materials for sinks.

Drywall peels behind a sink at Franklin High School in July.

Drywall peels behind a sink at Franklin High School in July.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

The district is already onto new projects, with construction underway at three large schools, and others coming soon.

There might be a couple more lessons from Franklin — including where the focus of beautiful new schools should lie.

“Of course everyone wants a building that’s aesthetically pleasing and forward-looking, but it’s more important that the building work for the people who use it and the community that surrounds it,” Polis said.

Like Polis, Emrich thinks the renovation should’ve focused more on what happens inside the building.

“It was kind of glossed over that there was going to be students in the building,” Emrich said.