We recap the (often contentious) boundary redrawing and enrollment balancing process for Portland Public Schools’ Southeast elementary and middle schools. Volunteer participants share their experiences and ideas for how the process can run more smoothly and equitably when the district turns to the next phase: balancing high school enrollments.

Source: Portland Public Schools

Southeast Portland schools are on the verge of major change. And with change, especially when it involves kids, comes a broad range of emotions. In 2020, Portland Public Schools (PPS) announced its charge to begin the massive challenge of balancing enrollment and school programming, starting with Portland’s most populous quadrant. The Enrollment and Program Balancing (EPB) process garnered plenty of strong feelings and thoughts among parents and community members on how it went and how it can work better in the future. These changes are just the beginning of boundary shifts across PPS, with the next phase addressing high school enrollments after PPS hires a new deputy superintendent.

PPS’ original plan was to convert K-8 schools in Southeast to K-5 elementary schools and 6-8 comprehensive middle schools. Their intention was to support equitable programming (such as robust middle school offerings for all PPS students) and address under- and over-enrollment in these schools.

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The process involved two phases, with Phase 1 intended to determine which schools would feed into Kellogg Middle School and convert Harrison Park K-8 to a middle school, and Phase 2 was to adjust boundaries for PK-5 schools. Along the way, the goalposts shifted: Phase 1 ended up addressing only Kellogg’s enrollment and bumped Harrison Park’s conversion to Phase 2, which also shifted to finding a new home for Harrison Park’s K-5 and increasing enrollment at Lane Middle School.

Families whose kids attend Arleta, Creston, Lent and Marysville elementary schools were the first to feel the effects of this multifaceted process. In January 2021, the PPS Board of Education approved the conversion of these four schools from K-8s to K-5s, as well as moving the schools’ students in grades 6-8 to Kellogg. 

This past May, almost a year and a half later, the board approved additional sweeping changes to attendance areas in Southeast Portland schools. These changes affected 17 elementary and middle schools, two dual language immersion (DLI) programs at six of those schools, and, most important, thousands of students and their families for years to come. See “Does Your School Face Changes?” below for more details.

Some families welcome these changes that PPS believes will strengthen Southeast schools, but others question why these changes have to be made while we are still emerging from a pandemic. And some appreciate that the process involved PPS families from start to finish while others feel disillusioned and disappointed after two years of trying to determine how to best serve all students.

Convening the Southeast Guiding Coalition 

In spring 2020, PPS convened more than 30 parents, 18 principals, and two high school students to form the Southeast Guiding Coalition (SEGC). The volunteer group, which devoted more than 50 hours to meetings alone, was tasked with reviewing boundary change and program relocation options, listening to community feedback, and crafting a recommendation that then Deputy Superintendent Claire Hertz would use to draft her recommendation to the board. 

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During Phase 2, the coalition, which saw some turnover and the addition of a few community members, was given weighty tasks, including centering racial equity and social justice, along with middle school redesign and balanced enrollment. Starting in May 2021, and over the course of about seven months, they met 19 times, pored over large amounts of data, reviewed 15 proposals, and considered community feedback. 

In the end, the SEGC did not reach a consensus. Sixteen members — a majority of the coalition — submitted a dissenting opinion explaining that the final proposal didn’t meet the board’s own goals of balancing middle school enrollment, adding that PPS stifled them from considering other key options. The dissenters wrote, “This has created a limited framework for the entire process which prioritized protecting the most affluent, predominantly white schools in Southeast Portland, and placed the burden of disruption and change on those the process purports to be in support of.”

“The final result was pretty much the best that it can be given the circumstances,” says Sellwood Middle School and Lewis Elementary School representative Micah Chu. “But it was definitely not perfect.”

“It was disappointing that the coalition was not able to come together with consensus around a solution in Phase 2,” says SEGC co-chair and Hosford Middle School representative Beth Cavanaugh. “However, in the end, Southeast will have a robust system of middle schools to meet the needs of kids in this region, which is awesome. I’m hopeful that equitable resources and opportunities will reach every middle-school kid, regardless of what building they attend.”

Atkinson Elementary School representative Harmony Quiroz is less optimistic. “I don’t think schools are actually balanced,” she says. “K-5s will continue to experience instability in staffing because the minimum threshold is far too small to ensure robust class sizes. Kellogg [Middle School] will be overenrolled and Harrison Park [Middle School] will be under enrolled. With significant budget cuts coming next year, continued decreasing enrollment, and a high school process that hasn’t even started, I think we’ve actually caused more harm than good in changing boundaries the way we did.”

Arleta Elementary representative Sondra Blair says PPS’s decision to move on despite SEGC not reaching consensus was eye opening. “It basically told us what we had begun to suspect: On some level we were there so PPS could say that they had sought our input,” she says. Blair believes that the whole process should have started with “groups coming up with their best ideas, an ability to model those ideas, and moving forward with the best plan.”

That’s along the lines of what parent Josh Cody expected when the principal of the Creative Science School (CSS) asked him to represent their community. “PPS had just adopted new equity language, and I thought, ‘We can do something cool here in Portland,’” he says. “But that’s not what happened.”

Atkinson representative Quiroz’s feelings had also changed by the end of Phase 2. “I felt like it was important to be there to represent my community and to be able to inform my community of the changes that were happening,” she says. “In terms of the process, the district disregarded votes by the committee, dissenting voices among staff, and manipulated students and families to achieve their ends. I felt disenfranchised, disrespected, and like my time and my community’s time (had been) wasted.”

Process Shortcomings 

Coalition members gave countless hours of their own time to attend not only coalition meetings but also additional meetings with their school communities to help keep them informed of all the moving parts. Woodstock Elementary School representative Eddie Wang commends PPS “for taking on the gargantuan task of involving community members, even though it would have been much easier to carry out this process internally.” And Chu, the Sellwood and Lewis representative, appreciated how having the coalition, district staff, and a data analyst and modelers meeting together, albeit virtually, allowed everyone to communicate in real time. “Human voices and stories are important to this process, but having actual data is also important in the decision making,” he says.

But CSS parent Josh Cody said that some of it felt like a shell game. “If there are enough moving parts, people won’t notice if we land on something unsatisfactory,” he says.

SEGC co-chair Beth Cavanaugh appreciated PPS’s targeted community engagement in Southeast Portland through outreach to communities of color and impacted school communities, but she notes that these engagement efforts need further refinements, such as scheduling meetings at times that work for communities, ensuring adequate translation services, and creating opportunities for communities to engage and ask questions.

As they were, PPS’s engagement and outreach efforts left many families feeling broadsided, ignored and dismissed. This was particularly the case with Lent Elementary. On May 24, the evening of the board vote, a large number of Lent families and students spoke in person, virtually and in recorded public statements against the final proposal that changed the elementary school into a whole-school dual-language program. (As of press time, the PPS board was scheduled to vote on where the Lent neighborhood students would be placed and whether or not they’d move to that new school for the 2023-24 school year.)

Many SEGC members also cited PPS’ non-negotiables as a frustrating factor that limited their work. These included Creative Science remaining a K-8, and Harrison Park K-5 moving to the Clark Elementary building (where CSS is housed), and PPS’s decision to only include schools near Lane and Harrison Park.

“All Southeast schools should have been included … to increase positive outcomes in the work,” one member wrote in the SEGC Phase 2 process review. “The optics of leaving out the wealthiest schools was horrible, regardless of what intention the board had for doing so.”

“The exclusion of inner Southeast schools — schools that are overwhelmingly white, higher socioeconomic status and overenrolled — from the process essentially negated the RESJ [Racial Equity and Social Justice] lens through which we were supposed to steer the process and instead left outer Southeast schools to fight over scraps to fill their enrollment numbers,” Arleta representative Blair says.

Wang, the Woodstock representative, agrees. “Many of those inner Southeast schools are also overcrowded, but the fact is these wealthier schools were spared any disruptions during this process,” he says. “It just does not look good, especially when we were tasked to put racial and socioeconomic equity in the forefront of our decision making.”

Atkinson representative Quiroz feels that PPS put up roadblocks that prevented SEGC members from having a meaningful role in the process. “The district’s original guardrails and non-negotiables sent us down a path in which we spent months on program placement (such as where to house CSS) and had little to no time at the end to talk about boundary lines,” she says. “And when the non-negotiables shifted, there was little to even talk about because it created such rigid lines that we ultimately couldn’t actually engage in a meaningful way.”

Another concern SEGC members had was whether PPS could truly center BIPOC voices and BIPOC participation in the coalition, citing multiple barriers to access.

“It was essentially an unpaid, part-time job if your school was one slated to experience significant change,” Blair, the Arleta representative, says. “PPS claims to want to center BIPOC students and to apply a RESJ lens and include more families from immigrant, BIPOC, and lower socioeconomic communities yet has such high time-commitment requirements, short turnarounds of materials, and a lack of resources for reaching the community.”

Language was another barrier for non-English speaking families, and PPS struggled to provide translated materials in a timely manner. And although PPS offered feedback sessions in several languages, they were often difficult for non-English speakers to access, whether because they were held at an inconvenient time or because of lack of access to appropriate technology, particularly during the pandemic shutdown, when all meetings were virtual. 

In the SEGC debrief, one member wrote that “it was challenging to be a person of color on this committee. There were pivotal moments when it felt like the experience was centered in whiteness, where data overtook perspective.” Another says that the experience was “different for those who do not speak English fluently” and that there “could have been other opportunities for connecting with families. … In the BIPOC communities, personal connections would have been better than connecting virtually.”

Next Steps, with Room for Improvement

PPS still has a long way to go to balance enrollment across the district. Several high schools are overcrowded and while the district has started the move away from K-8 schools, it still has 10 such schools (four of which are focus-option schools) left. But PPS says there’s no timeline in place to continue this work, especially since Deputy Superintendent Claire Hertz, who spearheaded this process, has retired.

“The project will commence after a new deputy superintendent arrives,” says PPS Project Manager Megan Salvador. “Unfortunately, I do not have a specific date for that.”

In the meantime, coalition members have suggestions on how to improve the process when PPS picks up where it left off. In addition to improving BIPOC representation, SEGC members say that PPS should create its non-negotiables with a coalition, rather than for it. Chu, the Sellwood and Lewis representative, believes that if SEGC had known at the start about not including Abernethy, Llewellyn, Grout and Duniway elementary schools, the coalition would not have agreed to move forward unless they could look at all Southeast schools. 

Some coalition members also called for improved communication that shares boundary redraw intentions with all families from the start, and that communications to all community members, not just those on the coalition, should include enrollment numbers, data, and how their schools will be affected.

“From the very beginning, before a coalition is formed, more awareness makes it more likely that people will get involved,” Chu says. “Instead, halfway through, communities start saying, ‘Wait … what’s going on?’”

CSS parent Josh Cody agrees. “PPS needs to drum up communication early within schools themselves,” he says. “This is something kids should know about and can tell their parents about so PPS can eliminate surprises. Too many people didn’t know what was going on, even after two years.”

Arleta representative Blair sums up what many PPS families are thinking: “I truly hope PPS takes the efforts of its passionate volunteers to heart and refines this process.”

Does Your School Face Changes?

Fall 2023 will see the implementation of Phase 2 of SE Enrollment and Program Balancing, which opens Clark Elementary School (the current site of Creative Science School) and Harrison Park Middle School; changes the boundaries of 11 elementary schools (Arleta, Atkinson, Bridger, Creston, Glencoe, Lewis, Marysville, Vestal, Whitman, Woodmere and Woodstock) and five middle schools (Hosford, Kellogg, Lane, Mt. Tabor and Roseway Heights); relocates CSS to Bridger; Bridger’s Spanish DLI to Lent, Mt. Tabor’s Spanish DLI to Kellogg, Harrison Park’s K-5 Mandarin DLI to Clark, and Hosford’s 6-8 Mandarin DLI to Harrison Park; and provides neighborhood school options for families in Bridger’s attendance boundary who do not wish to join the CSS focus option.

(See PPS’s web page for SE Enrollment & Program Balancing implementation, which includes a Check Your Address interactive map where you can find your child/children’s school assignment[s] beginning in fall 2023. Boundary changes will affect next year’s kindergarteners and 6th graders only [with a few exceptions]; students in other grades may stay at their current school through the highest grade and, through the transfer process, their younger siblings may join them.)

Editor’s Note:

The following editor’s note ran in the November 2022 issue of PDX Parent.

Before becoming a parent, I didn’t realize how big a part of my life my child’s school would become. It is a hub for my family; we’ve made innumerable memories there and found friends, volunteer opportunities and community. I’ve advocated strongly for the school on several occasions. And that’s how this feature article came about.

I assigned this article after several exhausting months following the Portland Public Schools’ Southeast Guiding Coalition (SEGC) — a volunteer group comprising parents, educators and community members — tasked with working with PPS to balance and improve enrollment at 17 Southeast elementary and middle schools. One of those schools is where my own kids, ages 10 and 7, attend and have been taught by truly excellent educators. I understand the need for PPS to redraw the boundaries in Portland. One of the primary goals was undoubtedly crucial: Making sure kids get equitable resources no matter the school they attend. I grasp that it’s an extremely complicated process, and that not everyone gets exactly what they want. But from my standpoint as a parent in Southeast, the execution did not play out well. At times it I felt like my kids’ school was pitted against neighboring schools. And that’s a pretty lousy feeling. 

Reporter Jade Chan found I was not the only parent to feel that way. Parent volunteers who served on the SEGC had a lot of feedback about the process. After reading the article, I hope parents will now have a better understanding of the process — so when the boundary works starts for high schools, more parents, caregivers and community members will get involved. And I hope the voices of SEGC reps who talked to Chan will resonate with district officials so that going forward they will strive to listen to coalition representatives to make the enrollment balancing process more equitable. Portland’s got great students, teachers and parents who all deserve a fair outcome.

-Denise Castañon

Jade Chan

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