Portland Public Schools: Bond Measure, For Better or Worse (by Guest Student Blogger Maria Baker)

NOTE: The following is a post from guest student blogger Maria Baker, who volunteered this summer through the James John SUN Program and participated in my UNST 421: Summer Youth Enrichment course.

Portland Public Schools are not exactly known for providing excellent education. There is constant debate over how to improve low state test scores and graduation rates. An upcoming 482 million dollar bond proposal for Portland Public Schools might be just what they need. The average age of a public school in America is about forty years old; this is a point of embarrassment as with age come pest infestations, leaks in pipes and roofs, hazardous materials like lead and asbestos and overfilled classrooms. To add insult to injury, Portland’s average age for schools is about sixty-five years. This is why the bond proposal to be voted on in the fall is so important.

Nobody wants to be put in an unsafe situation but that’s what thousands of students are subjected to each and every day they go to school here in Portland. If an earthquake were to hit Portland, many of our public schools would not stand a chance. About seventy million from the bond would go the help twenty-six schools remodel for seismic strengthening and improving roofs. They are necessary repairs if we want students to have the chance to learn in a safe environment.

There are four schools in Portland that are in such a state of disrepair that they must be replaced completely. Grant, Franklin, and Roosevelt high schools and Faubion K-8 would need 278 million dollars from the bond for the modernizations. These are the schools that need our help the most. They are literally falling apart, and they hinder students from learning at their greatest potential. Not only are the buildings dangerous but they are inefficient. After controlling for poverty, Students score about 10 percentile points lower on state tests if they attend a school in sub par condition. I would imagine it would be quite depressing and difficult to learn in a stuffy unventilated, outdated and vandalized classroom. Upon touring some of the PPS facilities, A writer for the Willamette Weekly commented they witnessed “schools that look like they belong in Detroit (sorry, Detroit) rather than the City of Roses”. This comment really struck me because I think Portland is such a beautiful and thriving city, how can this be going on here?

 A recent PARADE article “Rebuilding America’s Schools” highlighted how a bond could turn a school around in the right direction. Santa Ana high school in California was in a lower income area, and like most schools around the nation it needed a facelift badly. A 200 million dollar bond was approved to improve 56 schools. Santa Ana high school received forty million to remodel and since then vandalism has nearly stopped and attendance has increased. The article also mentions another bond measure success story coming out of Kentucky. The rebuilding of Richardson Elementary cut its energy costs to be about a quarter of an average school’s. The 2700 solar panels that cover the roof not only generate enough for the school, but also for the rest of the school district. To make it even better, the entire district consumes less energy than the panels produce and the district is able to sell back that extra energy to the grid. I was really inspired by this because it visibly shows how a renovation can contribute back to the community which supported it.

Portland Public Schools needs our support in order for anything to happen. Last years proposed bond to rebuild PPS was favored in early polls but it ended up being narrowly rejected by voters. Critics of the bond include homeowners on a fixed income as the bond would raise income taxes $1.10 per $1000 of assessed property value for the next eight years. I think that board members really tried to budget this years bond; it is nearly one dollar less per $1000 than the rejected bond from last year. If the bond passes then it will be the largest local government bond measure in Oregon history. The problems in our public school system is also fittingly the largest educational need in our state’s history as well so for me passing this bond measure makes complete sense. For better or worse Portland students must continue their education, so why would we not try to help?

Have your own input on the bond that you think PPS should hear? E-mail schoolmodernization@pps.net


Are Oregon School Districts Setting Low Standards OR Afraid to Take Risks? (Rudy Crew’s Response to District Achievement Compacts)

Dear All:

During this incredible week of student posts and conversations, I’m sneaking in a brief post because it’s important to keep informed about Oregon’s new Chief Education Officer, his role, and his possible impact on raising standards and achievement (and hopefully a love of learning) in Oregon schools.  In a recent article (“Oregon School Officials Set Low Goals, Angering Education Chief Rudy Crew”), we get a glimpse of Crew in his new leadership role.  Oregon has recently received a NCLB waiver and schools submitted their achievement compact plans (as per Kitzhaber’s new state-wide plan) to detail district goals for achievement in the upcoming school year.  In this article, it appears that Crew’s anger stems from a number of mostly unnamed (except for Gladstone) bigger districts that are setting low goals for student achievement in the next year.

The setting of low expectations and the response from Crew both deserve examination.  For me, both raise important questions.  We all know that students will rise to higher expectations if challenged to do so, but in an atmosphere geared toward standardized testing, evaluating teacher performance based on student scores, and labeling schools in a new but similar way to NCLB (we can not pretend that the labels “priority” and “focus” do not mean “in needs of improvement” even though they have a more hopeful tone), can we expect schools to set higher standards with the possibility of failure?  In my experience, those moments when I failed often ended up being my best learning experiences.  Being willing to take a risk means that we could have huge success or the opposite, but maybe in this culture of mediocre learning standards and restrictions on creativity and critical thinking, a risk is worth it.  And maybe Crew is asking us to take that risk?  

When my children enter school, I can only hope that they will be allowed to take chances without fearing punishment or utter failure.  As a newish parent, I’ve already realized that if something is not good enough for my own children, it’s not good enough for any child in my community.  And if it’s not good enough for any child in my community, it’s not good enough for any child in Oregon.  Let’s find concrete ways to support schools, kids, teachers, and administrators this year to really work together for real achievement…even if we have to take big risks.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts?  Do you think schools are at fault in these low expectations or is there more to the story?

New Oregon School Ratings: Let’s Show Kids They Truly Are a “Priority”

In my Friday morning Enhancing Youth Literacy class at Portland State University today, we started our session by taking a look at Oregon’s newly released school ratings.  What should we all know about this new system of rating?  Oregon was recently granted a No Child Left Behind Act waiver and has now developed its own rating system that includes labels of “priority,” “focus,” and “model” schools.  These labels only impact schools receiving Title I anti-poverty funding.  Priority schools appear to be the ones in the bottom 5% of achievement; focus schools are those in the bottom 15% of achievement, and model schools are the schools with the best performance that will be used as resources for best practices.  Priority and model schools will receive additional state support.  It’s a little unclear what that additional state support will look like, but hopefully it will actually be the kind of support these schools need.

Back to my moment in the classroom…

We did a bunch of searches to see how various local schools are doing.  We looked at the schools of the students that we have been volunteering with at Upward Bound (Madison, Grant, Roosevelt), we looked at schools that my own students had attended (Reynolds, Clackamas, etc.), and we checked a few schools in neighborhoods that are more affluent to compare them with schools in neighborhoods that struggle economically.

The result?  Concern for those schools who have historically done poorly and that continue to do so.  Worry for the kids and parents in schools that have struggled so hard.  Anxiety for the teachers in those struggling schools.  Dispair at graduation rates as low as 20%.  And a little bit of hope from the fact that Oregon is now looking at the growth in schools rather than just the scores.  If we can focus on growth, encourage more growth, and show kids that they can actually learn and grow, then we’ll be on the right path.

Here are some of the local news stories that have resulted from a first-glance analysis of the data:

  • Portland Schools Get More ‘Focus” on Achievement from State” (Portland Tribune): In this article, education journalist Jennifer Anderson points out that out of the entire state, Portland has 6 priority schools, 6 focus schools, and no model schools.
  • New Oregon School Ratings Show Familiar Patterns bu Highlight Little-Known Schools” (The Oregonian):Here, Beth Hammond talks about the ways the new school ratings show the same kinds of patterns we have seen under the No Child Left Behind ratings system.  Schools in higher poverty areas are doing worse than schools in more affluent areas.   Schools that serve families who are learning English as a second language are also struggling more than the schools that don’t.  Elementary schools are doing better than middle schools; middle schools are doing better than high schools; high schools are struggling.  No surprises here.  This grim picture has been painted again and again.

Of course, it’s not the data that’s most important in this story — it’s the kids, teachers, and families involved in the school system; it’s the community members who must come together to actually help schools see improvement.  If this NCLB waiver really works, we may see growth.  Let’s show “priority” schools that they’re not failures and that they’re not “in needs of improvement” — let’s show them that they are our priority in this next school year.  Please volunteer, vote to support kids/families in November, become a member of an advocacy organization like Stand for Children (or other similar groups), join the PTA, and/or become a mentor.  All of these acts show kids that they are our priority and that they are our focus. Let’s show kids that the change in language isn’t just another empty promise.  

Are Our Schools Putting the Needs of Adults Before the Needs of Children?: Reflections on Charter Schools and *The Lottery* (by Guest Student Blogger Emily Jasperson)

Note: In the Summer Youth Enrichment Capstone, Emily Jasperson volunteered this term through the James John SUN summer program and worked with elementary school students. She has a background in childcare and is thinking about becoming a teacher. She is the third student blogger in this series.

With all of the obvious issues with public education in the United States today, it is clear that something needs to be done to close achievement gaps and find new and better ways to educate our future. Charter schools attempt to accomplish these goals, and actually appear to do it quite nicely. After watching The Lottery, I think of these institutions in an entirely new way and find myself really agreeing with their practices. Before, I had heard mostly negative things about them. Like they were only for the rich and privileged, and while some are, a majority are located in poor communities, transforming struggling children’s lives for the better.

            One of the things that impressed me most about Harlem Success, the charter school featured in the film, was the high level of teacher support and encouragement. Most everyone can agree that a teacher has a great deal to do with the success of his or her students. The teachers at Harlem Success are routinely observed and evaluated, then given suggestions and guidance based on these observations. This does not happen in public schools. Here, teachers are spread too thin and do not feel supported, or so I’ve heard. With 100% of its students passing tests, it’s quite clear that they are doing something right.

            Another aspect of this charter school, and many others, is the emphasis placed on graduation. Even in kindergarten classrooms the graduation year of the students is prominently displayed. The goal for students at Harlem Success is graduating and going on to college, not test scores. And it actually works! Children at these schools are told, and it is expected, that they will graduate. In public schools in similar areas one is almost expected not to graduate. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no expectations set out for your life, well no positive ones at least. It’s sad that this is a reality for many children today.

            With all of the positive outcomes of charter schools, there is still opposition. Watching the parents opposing Harlem Success was confusing to me. Don’t they realize that kids just like their own are receiving an education far better than they get at public school? Perhaps they just fear change, or maybe they are misguided about what charter schools actually are and do. In the film, there was talk about the teacher’s union and how charter schools are in direct conflict with their views. It does seem like charter schools are threatening the institution and bureaucracy of public schooling. The founder of Harlem Success made a great point when she said that we needed to stop “putting the interests of adults above the interests of children.” Why is this so hard for so many people to see? Does everything have to be about big business in this country, even when it comes to kids? Clearly, charter schools are doing something right, but when will the public school system start adopting their effective practices and actually educate our children for their futures?

How to Fix Education? Four Perspectives from Recent Education News

Usually during the middle of the term, the students in my education-focused Capstone courses start to feel overwhelmed by all of the challenges to education that we discuss in class and see within our community partner sites.  I’ve realized how important it is to not only discuss the problems but to propose solutions — both large and small scale.  This prevents despair and encourages action.  Here are four different moments from this week’s education news that highlight the ways that people (from those in national organizations to those in a single school district or city) are working to fix education.  Read and let me know what you think!

  1. In the Huffington Post, author and education reformer Kevin Chavous writes “If You Want Our Economy Fixed, Fix Education.”  He details a recent report’s findings on FOUR (not one, but four) achievement gaps that U. S. students face: the international achievement gap, the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap, and the system-based achievement gap.  His recommendations for how to fix education?  Give schools equitable and stable funding, employ and support strong teachers, and come together as a community to demand better education and to work toward it.
  2. In Marian Wright Edelman’s latest blog posts on education (she is the director of the Children’s Defense Fund and one of the most prominent advocates and activists for children’s rights in the U.S.), she talks about the privilege and importance of voting to support kids and education and looks at one of the big issues in education conversations right now — the inequity in discipline and the way schools push out students and then blame them for failing.  The short story: Support kids and education by keeping them in school rather than pushing them out and educating the whole child (emotional, intellectual, etc.).  And push for voter registration, voter education, and voter turnout in the fal
  3. In Portland youth-related news, the youth bus pass program has been saved (although it has also brought up a bunch of complicated issues about balancing the strained budgets of our schools, Metro, etc.).  This is good news for students who will still be able to take public transportation to and from school and school events for free.  The fix? Give students access to resources, and they will use them.  They will also feel like the community wants them to succeed.
  4. Also, in Portland Public School news, tonight, there is a conversation being held about enrollment balancing options for the Jefferson cluster.  If this is your neighborhood and your school district, please attend and add your voice.  The Jefferson area certainly needs stability and lots of support right now after the closing of Humboldt and Harriet Tubman in addition to years of inequity for students in the area.  Lots of hope for these schools as they go forward! The fix? Figure out how to stabilize enrollment so that Jefferson-area students can settle in and feel supported, heard, and pushed intellectually. It also seems like a discussion about the transfer policy and how to encourage attendance in neighborhood schools should also be on the table.

As always, being an informed community member is one of the first and most important steps to being a more engaged community member.  Keep up, ask questions, and keep me posted on other local issues that are important to you!

Why We’re Uneducated About Education (by Guest Blogger Tyler Kennedy)

I love my job because I’m constantly learning.  I learn how to be a better teacher, what I want to take place in the classroom, and what I want to take place in the world each time I teach.  I learn about new perspectives, innovative ideas, and questions that I should be asking.  I get to be inspired by committed, hopeful, energized people willing to sacrifice a little to better the place we live for all.

This week, a few students agreed that I could share some of their work.  My first guest blogger is Tyler Kennedy, a student who is passionate about sustainability and who has become very involved in our Enhancing Youth Literacy course discussions and hands-on work.  His words appear below in teal.

The general public is not educated in terms of funding of educational programs because it’s not a subject covered in our sensationalized media today….If I were in charge of educational funding, I would assuredly allocate more funds toward early age education and parental support and assistance programs during the first few years of childhood.  However, this is due to my belief that it is not an educational problem as it is more of a poverty issue, which has repercussions in education…Providing a social help network to poor or needy families can go a long way.  Building and repairing libraries and other community resources is a great start.  With so much wealth being traded daily in our nation, how can we let our brothers and sisters suffer without basic life necessities?

Conversations and thinking about poverty, our education system, and the media are the first step in creating change in our communities, and I’m proud to be a witness and participant in this kind of discussion.  

A Question for PDXEAN Readers:

So, what do you think, readers?  Why are we uneducated about education and what’s the best way to educate a public that often feels apathetic or defeated?

Depave Project at James John School: Green Spaces for Sustainable Learning & Living

I had the honor of working with the James John Elementary School SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) program during spring term.  Five of my students were placed at SUN and had an amazing experience with the kids.  James John is currently experiencing a Depave project, where the large asphalt expanse of the playground is slowly being turned into green spaces: a small soccer field, trees, and garden areas.  In an era where kids get much less time outdoors and much less hands-on learning, this is a move in the right direction.

For all of my students who volunteered at James John and for all of you who love the idea of green spaces for kids, here’s a wonderful volunteer opportunity this Saturday, 06/23: Depave James John.  They are looking for volunteers to help with the depaving process, which I can only imagine is cathartic!

If you go, post back here about how it went!

Happy volunteering,


Should Teachers Be Able to Teach “Contemporary, Controversial Issues?”: Classrooms as Sites for Social Justice Learning

I’ve been following the news and public outcry following the death of Trayvon Martin and having lots of conversations with fellow educators and education advocates as the story unfolds.  This morning, as my husband (also a teacher) and I drank our morning coffee, we listened to a story on NPR titled “Trayvon Martin Story Sparks Difficult Conversations.”  The radio program featured multiple guests talking about the conversations they’ve been having as well.  One guest, a high school teacher who sounded very able to facilitate conversations with his students on social justice issues, noted that his fellow educators were not as comfortable doing so: “Some are not as comfortable about, you know, basically dealing in a real, contemporary, controversial issue.”

This quote really struck me.  Some educators are in classrooms but are not comfortable, knowledgeable, and/or equipped to handle discussions with their students about what is happening now in education and for youth.  Why is this the case? And shouldn’t there be public outcry about this?  What are classroom spaces really for?  And what is public sentiment surrounding the work that should be done in schools?

The program I teach in at Portland State University is all about working on and discussing contemporary, controversial issues.  Capstone students volunteer in the community and have the opportunity to become more educated about the roots of the issues in these courses.  I love teaching these classes because I see students becoming better citizens and more thoughtful community members as they realize the intersection among things like poverty, systemic racism, the history of redlining, issues of standardized testing, state budgeting, etc., and can become more active based on their knowledge.

But shouldn’t this kind of education be happening on all levels?  Students shouldn’t make it all the way to their senior year in college to have these kinds of conversations and to do this kind of work, should they?  Shouldn’t we be rallying in the streets not only for Trayvon but also for the millions of students who are disenfranchised everyday because they are educated differently and treated with different expectations?

While all of these thoughts have been swimming around in my head, I also received the most recent edition of Rethinking Schools.  The article by Mark Hansen titled “Persuasion from the Inside Out” gave me the hope that I needed.  Here is a teacher of 3rd graders who believes in them as thinkers and as community members and who isn’t afraid to talk about social justice.  Supporting this kind of teaching may be just what we need to shift the entire system that leads to violence against black youth in our communities and so many other kinds of inequities for kids.

Ending this post, I will reiterate what I say to my students every day that I teach:  it is amazing to have knowledge, but it is more important to do something with it.  And it is great to volunteer for a term or for a weekend, but it is more important to work in the community for a lifetime.  One easy way to get involved?  Join the Portland Area Rethinking Schools group and/or think about mentoring a young person: Oregon Mentors.

Mindful Teaching & Quiet Time Techniques (with Comments from Guest Blogger Chaz Mortimer)

The sun is out, and it’s the perfect day to share a wonderful article on using “Quiet Time” techniques to help students settle their minds.  I’m grateful to have guest blogger Chaz Mortimer on board to share some of his reflections based on his reading of the article and his experience teaching in Portland.

I am a big fan of Edutopia’s “Schools That Work” series of videos and articles.  After a long week talking with students and colleagues about the problems in the public school system, it’s nice to read about positive, creative ways teachers and schools are meeting student needs and supporting kids.

The site just released a lengthy piece on “Quiet Time” techniques that are being used at Visitacion Valley Middle School to address the problem of student stress and anxiety that all too often result in detention and suspension or full on dropping out of school: Tackling Truancy, Suspensions, and Stress.  This piece is worth a read.  Add it to your weekend reading list.  The article includes resources and tools for educators who might like to try some of these techniques.

Chaz (www.chazmortimer.com) posted on my original link to a piece of this article, and I knew immediately that I should share his words.  He is a local musician and teacher who is always looking for creative, innovative ways to connect with students and to give them moments of peace, through music and beyond.  Here’s his reflection on the article and his experience as a teacher.  In particular, he addresses some reader concerns about having meditation in the classroom (his words are in teal):

All this week I have been reflecting on my two seemingly opposite educations: The Oberlin Conservatory and Naropa University… I am thankful for both the strong social justice movement and activism I aligned myself with at Oberlin and the contemplation, mindfulness, inner-work and meditation I cultivated at Naropa (Founded by Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for those that don’t know). This story [the article on Quiet Time] speaks to my experience as a student and a teacher….

In college, I first attended Oberlin Conservatory and then after crisis hit me and my family I took some time off and then finished at the Buddhist inspired Naropa University.  At Oberlin the push for social justice was strong, and I loved that, but the amount of information and expectations thrown at me were unrealistic.  At Naropa, each class started with a brief meditation and bowing in and at the end of class we would sit and bow out. I found that the skills in mindfulness that I cultivated were equally as powerful as the activism that I absorbed at Oberlin. I am finding that for every action that we take (the yang) a brief moment of silence and inner work (the yin) helps to bring balance…and a more holistic success.

As far as the religious piece, I had the opportunity to study meditation quite a bit and feel, like most of my teachers, that Buddhism in particular is not a religion like the others and is more about sitting with your own mind.  There is one class I teach in particular, a 4th and 5th grade music class, where the kids are so wiggly and giggly that it is almost impossible to make progress. The few times that I have been able to get them to quietly listen to silence amidst all of our “noise,” I feel we have made great strides. It is by tying those islands of clarity together that the mad man heals his insanity, and that’s the way the classroom can feel in some of our more intense schools.

Please feel free to comment on the article or Chaz’s comments here at PDXEAN or on our Facebook page.  If you want to check out Ethos Music Center, through which Chaz currently does some of his teaching, please go to Ethos Music Center.

Questions of the day: Would you be comfortable using “quiet time” or meditation techniques in the classroom where you teach?  Would you like your child to have room for non-religious quiet reflection as part of his/her school day?  What do you think about the results in the study?

What Goes Well with Holiday Cookies? Thursday’s Tiny Reading Collection

It’s that time of the week again — time to hunker down with some coffee, some peanut butter cookies (my current baked good of choice), and some updates on what’s going on in education this week.

The title for these Thursday posts (“Tiny Reading Collection”) is inspired by my daughter (pictured here) who is now two and in love with language.  One of her favorite words is “tiny,” and anything remotely small is labelled in this way.  Tiny crackers, tiny mermaid, tiny reindeer.  Her delight in learning and collecting new words motivates me every day as a teacher and writer.

On that note, instead of focusing on the grim and the grimmer, which is all too easy to do, I’m serving up some articles that will tap into your capacity to hope, to celebrate, and to give.  In the last few weeks, I’ve been in touch with a handful of former students who are choosing to continue on in their community-based learning placements (a kindergarten classroom, a community preschool, etc.) or who have sought out other kinds of community support activities after the Capstone class was over.  This always gives me great hope and inspiration. I hope that the following articles will inspire you, too.  Tis the season — enjoy!

  • Read about a classroom at Centennial High School where teachers connect pop culture to literary analysis.
  • Find out more about how Clackamas High School provides food and clothing for families who need support this winter.
  • Tune in to Helen Ladd’s paper on the connection between education and poverty, which has created a buzz and will hopefully help administrators and educators focus in on the fact that (a) those children who need support the most aren’t getting it and (b) schools alone cannot fix the problem of poverty that impacts so many young people.  While this paper outlines child poverty, it also provides a starting point for better, deeper work to support children and families.
  • Check out Elena Aguilar’s blog post about how to stay hopeful as an educator.

Finally, and I want to highlight this, I heard an inspiring story on NPR about micro-philanthropy efforts and was turned on to a website that educators use to fundraise for their classrooms: DonorsChoose.org.  This site allows you to search by city or by issue (I searched for projects in Portland) and includes things like teachers fundraising to put more dictionaries in their classrooms, educators seeking to buy art supplies for innovative projects, etc.  In a season where many are considering donations (as gifts or as part of their New Year’s Resolutions), please do check out this site and think about supporting a teacher and his/her classroom in your very own community.

As always, I’d love to hear from all of you who are reading!  Do you donate time or money to organizations or individuals of your choice throughout the year or at the year’s end?  What kind of donations do you feel most apt to make?  What do you hope to get back when you give your time or money?  And what do you offer to the community?  Please share your experiences to inspire others to join in…