As Gov. Kate Brown calls for more analysis of the state Board of Education’s decision that allows high schoolers to take less than a full load of courses, Portland Public Schools is weighing whether to take advantage of those exemptions.

Bryan M. Vance/OPB

The state’s largest district pored over the four exemptions, which apply to seniors who already have enough credits to graduate, seniors on-track to graduate, students enrolled in alternative high school programs, and students taking at least one accelerated course (such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or college credit).

Local and state officials are looking ahead optimistically, as lawmakers and Gov. Brown discuss adding as much as three weeks to the average school year. But until that happens, board members at the state’s largest district are skeptical, based on PPS’ own difficult history of short-changing high schoolers.

Several PPS board members have a history of fighting the district over its past tendency to enroll students for only partial instructional days. Those memories flared Tuesday night, as board members considered taking advantage of state exemptions, which would potentially allow thousands of Portland students to attend high school part-time.

“My eldest child was in high school in the time of ‘part-time school,’ when the norm was for students, even sophomores, to have six classes. And you saw these kids walking around downtown Portland in the middle of the day,” recalled Amy Kohnstamm, who was among several parents who signed onto a formal complaint years ago against PPS.

“They were either denied a full schedule or stuck in a non-academic study hall, so that’s why people are sensitive to it,” Kohnstamm explained.   

PPS officials and board members seemed unenthusiastic about allowing younger students to take less than a full load. Kohnstamm said the district is already working on codifying that.

“It will be formalized in an administrative directive, that ninth through 11th graders will be scheduled in … eight classes,” Kohnstamm said in an effort to set aside the exemption for younger high school students enrolled in advanced coursework.

District officials said they’re in the process of creating a system of high schools with consistent rules and standards, including around scheduling and course counseling. Board member Julia Brim-Edwards agreed that counselors need to offer sound guidance, so that students don’t opt for course loads that could imperil their future plans for college or other career tracks.

Brim-Edwards echoed Kohnstamm’s history lesson, saying the district’s past patterns of fighting changes continue to fuel skepticism from parents.

“You wonder why there’s a lack of trust. It’s that for six years, nothing was easy in terms of getting teachers back, getting students scheduled back in those classes, and getting rid of useless study halls,” Brim-Edwards said.

But people with less history with the district understood the value of adding the kind of flexibility the Oregon Board of Education allowed. Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said he didn’t want to prohibit seniors, for instance, from scaling back on classes if they had jobs or other career obligations outside of the classroom. Guerrero also wanted to include consideration of academic supports if they’re more valuable to certain students than electives, for instance.

Guerrero’s flexibility found support with the PPS student representative, Nick Paesler, a senior at Cleveland High School.

“I think this flexibility will take stress off a lot of students; I can name students who are one of the main providers for a family. They have to go out and get a job, and the freshman to junior schedule doesn’t allow them to do that,” said Paesler, adding that he doesn’t want a limited schedule to cut off their career options, either.

Board members, however, are concerned that school-level administrators could use part-time schedules as a way of trimming budgets at individual schools. Much like was done years ago, board members worry that if there are fewer students enrolled in certain courses, teachers responsible for those courses may become expendable.

Board member Paul Anthony said he has heard concerns that such plans are underway in some schools.

“I’m hearing from specific people in specific school communities that there are specific classes that the principals are planning on dropping,” Anthony said. “We do not want to see this used as an excuse to narrow any options for any student.”

District officials said they have not heard of principals making such plans. But top administrators said there are likely to be changes to high school offerings as PPS tailors course offerings to what students need. 

But when it comes to individual students and their course schedules, officials agreed that part-time school should be the “exception,” and should be based on the interests of students and parents in consultation with a school counselor.