The Portland Public Schools staff will recommend at the Tuesday school board meeting ending the year-round program at North Portland's Rosa Parks Elementary. Board members are scheduled to vote to agree or disagree with the staff recommendation.
But at a meeting Monday afternoon at Rosa Parks Elementary, staff and parents pointed to recent messages from the district that made it seem like the decision was predetermined.
In a letter dated last week, PPS Chief of Schools Shawn Bird said the district is committed to working with school staff and community members “as the school transitions to the traditional calendar."
Nearly the entire student population at Rosa Parks Elementary qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch based on limited family income. More than two-thirds of the student body is black or Latino, with white students making up 14%.
More than a dozen parents and staff met for more than two hours with three board members – board chair Amy Konstamm, Rita Moore (whose zone includes Rosa Parks) and recently-elected Michelle DePass.
The Rosa Parks group told the board members they felt unheard, left out of the process and undervalued by the district.
“It’s so frustrating because I want to develop a trust with the board and the district, and I have zero trust right now of the district I work with,” said ESL teacher Beyoung Yu.
Last year, board members voted to change the school's calendar without letting the school community know. Then, when teachers and parents told the district they had been given no indication that such a change was coming, board members and district leaders backed off. PPS administrators promised to engage the community and listen to staff concerns about the negative impacts of a traditional school year on students.
But now members of the school community are saying once again, they weren't listened to, or asked the right questions.
“We were never even asked in the survey or in any meeting what we wanted,” teacher-librarian Anne Urban said.
The district’s engagement process included a survey and a committee made up of district staff, school staff and community members.
Only 60 people responded to a survey sent by the district, and the survey didn't directly ask respondents whether they preferred the year-round calendar or changing to a traditional calendar year.
District staff said that question was left out intentionally, because “it limits perspective.”
At least one other board member intended to come to the meeting, but board laws prevent four or more board members showing up to a meeting without 24 hours’ public notice. Board chair Kohnstamm said the board decided not to alert the public. But at least one board member, vice chair Julia Brim-Edwards said she was not included in that decision.
The board first learned of the meeting on Thursday, Feb. 27.
Rosa Parks staff said they wanted every board member present, to give perspective and context before the vote.
“Today [Monday] felt like the first time in six years we could speak openly to more than one board member and we wish it could have happened a lot sooner and with more of you,” said Yu in an email sent Monday night.
All three board members apologized for the lack of engagement and collaboration in the process to figure out next steps for the school.
Board member Rita Moore told the group she planned to vote to move the school to a traditional calendar and explained her reasons.
Among those reasons, Moore said the district can’t adequately support the school on a year-round schedule.
“I don’t think it is realistic to expect that PPS is going to be able to do that,” Moore said. “I’m tired of PPS making promises it can’t keep. And I believe this is a promise it cannot keep.”
Board chair Amy Kohnstamm said she has heard from supporters of the year-round calendar, and supporters of a move to a traditional calendar.
PPS staff say Rosa Parks will miss out on some additional opportunities if they stay on a year-round schedule. That includes summer school, after-school programs, and added help with student interventions.
But Rosa Parks staff say the district never tried to give the school full support.
Curriculum materials and snacks do not arrive when staff needs them, and teachers have had to buy snacks for their students. Professional development opportunities for teachers can be hard for teachers to attend or plan for.
Rosa Parks staff say without that support, the school was never set up to succeed. And with a move to the same schedule as the rest of Portland Public Schools, school staff say the school would be set up to fail.
“We’re a good example of how the district now is continuing to fail students of color if you move us to a traditional calendar,” Yu said.
As measured by standardized test scores, Rosa Parks is significantly below state averages for student achievement in Math and English Language Arts. Attendance at the school is below the state average.
Nichole Watson taught at Rosa Parks before taking a position at the Portland Association of Teachers. Watson said the racially and economically diverse school community has been continuously harmed by the district.
“It’s so unfair to tell people that you believe in equity and then to sit and tell people 'well, we really can’t do that though,'” Watson said. “When specific communities need specific things, they are somehow miraculously able to get those things.”
DePass, the only school board member of color, seemed to agree. As the meeting dragged on, DePass became upset as she learned more about the district’s engagement process. She shared her own experience as a PPS student, parent and newly elected board member.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought about quitting this job because I don’t want to be tokenized,” DePass said.
DePass mentioned an equity training the board attended over the weekend.
“We just spent a bunch of money on training – to what end, if we’re still making decisions that harm black children?”
The Rosa Parks group presented recommendations both in the meeting and in an email sent Monday night.
In the future, Rosa Parks’ new principal Kevin Walker suggested collaborative recommendations from the district and the affected community.
Staff recommendations included a snack and food program to bridge gaps during the calendar, a community engagement committee, and an explanation of how the district will meet student needs.
As Rosa Parks teacher Urban urged Moore and the other board members to consider keeping the year-round schedule, she warned of problems the change could create, including staff turnover.
“There will be consequences among the faculty, there will be consequences in our families who are here,” Urban said. “I fail to accept that we can’t resolve this in a way where we’re not creating a new problem by solving a problem in a one-sided way that does not feel respectful to the community involved.”