Why PDX Families Stay (or not) in Their Neighborhood School

Brette Pedrick had heard all about Bridger School’s reputation: Lackluster test scores. Kids out of control. Not a place you want to send your child.

“And of course you’re hearing this from people who didn’t send their kids there,” said Pedrick, who lives east of Mount Tabor in Southeast Portland. “I felt like, ‘This is my neighborhood school; I owe it to this school to give it a shot.’ I wasn’t just going to go on fear and what fearful people were telling me.”

Pedrick is one of hundreds of local parents who shopped around for an elementary school and decided on her neighborhood school.

But capture rates, or the percentage of students who remain in the public school system and attend their neighborhood school, vary widely among different Portland communities.


Bridger, a K-8 near SE 80th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, “captures” only 52 percent of the students who live within its boundaries.

Skyline, in Northwest Portland, captures 91 percent of students who live in its boundaries (though that excludes those who might have opted for private school).

District officials said the reasons why vary from school to school.

But many parents say it’s because of bias and inequality. And data backs this up: Eighteen of PPS’s K-5 or K-8 schools are more than 70 percent white. Among that group, the capture rate averages 80 percent. Twenty-four schools are 50 percent or more kids of color. Their average capture rate is 61 percent.


Changing Demographics

At Creston K-8 near SE Powell and 49th Avenue, only 53 percent of neighborhood kids attend the school.

Creston principal Conrad Hurdle said part of his school’s challenge is that it’s surrounded by other options, including the Mandarin program at Woodstock, the Japanese program at Richmond and St. Ignatius Catholic School a couple blocks away.

A changing neighborhood is also having an impact.

“We have families who have traditionally sent their kids to Creston School, and they are committed to public school,” said Hurdle, Creston’s principal since 2013. “As our neighborhood changes, those families can no longer afford our neighborhood. Newer families want to know about school choice.”

So school staff and parents work to tell neighborhood families they should attend Creston.

The PTA is on Facebook and Twitter and helped distribute 250 yard signs that state: “Creston K-8: we love our neighborhood school.” The district helped the school put up a new reader board in front of the campus.

Still, people judge schools based on what they see online: test scores, demographics and the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. At Creston, 32 percent of students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

“We were a Title I school in the past,” said Hurdle. “Sometimes people have their connotations of what a Title I school is; we’re trying to break through that as well.”

Losing middle school students

The PPS elementary schools with the lowest capture rates are almost all K-8; Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, Bridger, Creston, King, Vestal and Woodlawn all have capture rates below 55 percent. The trend is for this group of schools to lose students at 6th grades, as families peel off in search of a more traditional middle school.

Parents said the K-8 model can result in middle school classes so small, students do not have the course options available elsewhere.

“We lose a lot of families after they have been at our school for K-5,” said Creston PTA president Abby Nilsen-Kirby, who has three children. “As a K-8, as wonderful as our middle school is, we don’t have the offerings that Mount Tabor or Hosford (both nearby middle schools) have.”

Nilsen-Kirby herself is a Portland native who went to Richmond, Hosford and Cleveland High School. As a parent, she tried to lottery her daughter into the Japanese program at Richmond, but she didn’t get in.

“As a kid growing up here, my perception of Creston was skewed definitely in a negative way,” said Nilsen-Kirby. “I’ve experienced that as a parent. Our PTA has been very active at changing the views on Creston and our appearance in Portland. I think it’s getting better.”

Bias among neighbors

It’s clear from some PTA websites that parents are working hard to squash negative perceptions about their kids’ schools.

Vernon K-8 School, near NE 20th Avenue at Killingsworth, captures only 55 percent of the students in its attendance area, but on Vernon’s PTA website, every PTA board members’ photo, personal email and personal phone number is listed.

The PTA is equally active at James John Elementary School in St. Johns where 60 percent of neighborhood students attend the school — one of the lowest capture rates among PPS’s K-5 schools.

James John parent Laura Streib said part of the problem is when families leave, the money allocated to that student also leaves the school, further hampering the school.

“If every school was able to offer the full range of programing that schools were deemed ‘good’ were offering, then people wouldn’t be shopping around for schools,” said Streib.

James John, for example, does not have a music teacher.

Streib started a nonprofit before she had kids to bring music to schools without music programs; her nonprofit, Vibe of Portland, brings violin classes to some third, fourth and fifth graders at 10 schools, including James John, Bridger and Creston.

James John is following the lead of other PPS schools and fundraising to help pay for public education in Portland.

“We’re getting ready to do our first ever auction — that has never been done at our school before,” said Streib.

About 100 families left James John last year because of political or economic reasons, including no-cause evictions, Streib said.

“We know several families that have moved back to Mexico after the election,” she said.

PPS director of enrollment planning Judy Brennan said that mobility is indeed at play in some schools’ capture rates.

At Woodlawn, a K-8 near NE 11th Avenue and Lombard Street, for example, the population moves more than the district average, Brennan said.

“The stability index is a measure of students who started the school after the beginning but don’t finish at the end,” said Brennan. “There’s a mobile population at Woodlawn. That can have an impact on the capture rate. It’s about housing change, not school change.”

Brennan said the district tries to positively impact students who move by allowing them to stay at their school if their housing situation changes.

“We allow a lot of stability in school placement,” Brennan said. “The district allows a student to stay in a school through the highest grade even if the family address changes.”

Other reasons to opt out

For parent Shelby Galvin, the decision to opt out of her neighborhood school was not about test scores or demographics.

Galvin lives in northwest Portland, and her neighborhood school is Chapman Elementary. She wanted her son to learn a second language, so she enrolled him at The International School at the age of 3, and he stayed through first grade.

“I had just liked the idea of an international school and language. That was the draw,” said Galvin.

Her son successfully lotteried into the Spanish immersion program at Ainsworth — the only elementary-school Spanish immersion program on the west side of Portland — but Galvin stayed at TIS.

“It was a hard decision,” said Galvin. “I don’t know if that was a right decision. He certainly ended up doing well at TIS. Certainly the neighborhood school has a draw. It’s what I grew up doing.”

But Galvin didn’t love the congested area of The International School, which sits almost under the intersection of Interstate 5 and the 405 in SW Portland near downtown.

“Then one teacher left, another came,” said Galvin. “There were these hiccups.”

So she threw his name in the hat for Catlin Gabel, a $27,000-year private school near highways 26 and 217, and he got in. Her son finished second grade there in spring.

He gets language three times a week, but Galvin is still missing the immersion of TIS.

Now that she looks back at her decisions, she said class sizes might keep her family from reconsidering public school.

Her son’s second grade class at Catlin Gabel had 20 students with two teachers.

“Chapman has 125 kids in their second grade class,” said Galvin. “Catlin has
40 kids. TIS had like 30.”

Those numbers show up in crowded classrooms, which are wildly inconsistent across the district.

In 2016-2017, a second grade classroom at Buckman, an arts immersion school in SE Portland, had 25 students, while a second grade class at nearby Grout had 19 children and a second grade class across the river at Maplewood in SW Portland had 32 students.

Making the choice

Parents across the board said the best thing to do when deciding on a school is to look beyond what’s posted online and visit in person.

“What parents needs to think about when they’re thinking about choosing a school for their child, being at a neighborhood school, you’re creating connections with people you live by and with businesses in that community,” said Creston parent Nilsen-Kirby. “Neighborhood schools are these amazing hubs and I just don’t think people realize that. I wish that every parent would take time to just check it out for themselves.”

Melissa Jones
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