New houses and condos are going up all over North Portland.
Rising home prices have brought a profound demographic change to the Boise neighborhood in North Portland: the white population has almost doubled since 2000, while the African American population has fallen 40 percent.
"I would liken it to, like, overseeing a funeral," said Kevin Bacon, the principal at Boise-Eliot-Humboldt School, near trendy North Mississippi. "It's like watching the death of a community."
The racial makeup of his school looks like the neighborhood did 20 years ago. It's one of several schools with racial demographics than don't reflect the neighborhoods they're in.
Across the street from Boise-Eliot-Humboldt, there's a yoga studio and boutique bakery. But Bacon said the new white population mostly stops at the schoolhouse door.
They decide 'Oh, that school is not for me' — because some kid will do something that's a kid thing," Bacon said. "But it'll be sort of attached with different meaning to race."
Portland's enrollment director, Judy Brennan, explained why white parents were able to move their kids to other schools so easily.
"The easy access to transfers, through a lottery, where you didn't have to provide a reason, was one of the reasons that more — predominantly more white students — were often the ones transferring out of neighborhoods," Brennan explained.
Schools like Boise-Eliot-Humboldt would be half-empty if it were just a victim of white flight. But it's not — because of what black families did, after they left.
"They didn't see a lot of African American families where they were moving, so they brought their kids to schools where they knew that other African American families (were), and where the support system, was," Brennan said.
Bacon said families of color want to give their children a rare opportunity in Portland.
"We're running about 312 African American kids - which is about 60 percent of our population," Bacon said. "They want their students in a majority setting, as opposed to being in the minority setting."
And African-American families go to great lengths to keep their kids in a majority black school.
Jason Trombley co-chairs Portland's advisory committee on transfers.
"A number of parents were flat-out, in saying 'I'm prepared to falsify my address, and use grandma's address, so that my kid can go here.' " Trombley said. "Because for at least some members of that community, they believe that because 'my Dad went to the school, my grandmother went to this school, etc.' There's that cultural tie to it, and they feel it's one of the few schools that's treated the African American community with respect."
Bacon said families will take extraordinary steps to get their kids to his school — from many miles away.
"We got examples of students taking three TriMet buses to get here every day — and that can become a punctuality issue for that particular student," Bacon said. "But then there's also a commitment level that 'Wow! You take the bus, three times, every day, and OK, you're 15 minutes late, but you're here every day?' So am I going to play address police, and try to sniff this out?"
To be fair — the district suspects there are plenty of white parents doing the same thing. Officially, the district doesn't want anyone gaming the system to change schools.
Recent policy changes tightened official transfer processes. Parents can only use the lottery to enroll in magnet programs, like arts, science or foreign language. And those programs now prioritize low-income families. Moving from one neighborhood school to another requires a hardship petition.
But African American families told the transfer committee they don't trust these official systems. Trombley said there's a perception of a white middle-class bias at the core of district decision-making.
"There was a fair amount of angst and frustration in that 'our school didnt' have programs before, but because the white kids are coming back, we're going to have academic programs now?' " Trombley said.
"Between some communities, there was some resentment, and so it's understanding - where any kid goes, there should be the program. And it shouldn't be based on how much money your parents make, or the color of your skin."
Trombley said the only way to silence critics is for the district to better support all schools.