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Portland Stops the Closures

Chris Beck and Madelynn Kay Feb 26

Weeks of community protest paid off on February 12, when the Portland Public Schools (PPS) superintendent announced her recommendation to the school board–no school closures.

Over the last month, district officials have floated several proposals for "enrollment balancing," all of which included closing schools that serve high-minority, low-income populations. But the latest proposal, after weeks of community protest, spares all neighborhood schools from closure.

All of the proposed closures were in the Jefferson cluster, a grouping of schools that has historically fed into Oregon's only majority Black high school. As teacher Elizabeth Thiel wrote in the Oregonian:

People in the Jefferson cluster have been through this before. We were among those experimented on with the great K-8 transition seven years ago. We had all our neighborhood middle schools taken away. We've seen a boys academy and a girls academy come and go.

Jefferson High School has been redesigned more times, I think, than anyone can keep track of. Last spring, two of our schools were closed without warning or discussion. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we are tired of it.

The Jefferson cluster is located in North Portland, a neighborhood that is home to the highest concentration of African Americans in Oregon. But over the last decade, middle-class white families, encouraged by the city's urban renewal plan, have increasingly gentrified the community.

As the neighborhood demographics changed, current Gates Foundation education director and then-PPS Superintendent Vicki Phillips pushed through market-based restructuring strategies using "school choice." These policies allow more affluent, mostly white students to transfer away from the so-called "failing" schools in the Jefferson cluster.

So while across the country, most schools are segregated because neighborhoods are segregated, in Portland, schools are segregated by design. As Thiel points out:

In a neighborhood where 72 percent of the population is white, 90 percent of my students this year are of color. Despite the increasing affluence of my neighborhood, most of my students are living in poverty. Where are all the white kids? Apparently, they have transferred elsewhere, like so many others who live in the cluster.

These aren't the first closures in the Jefferson cluster. Last year, Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women and Humboldt PK-8 were closed without any community input or discussion.

In fact, over the last 10 years, PPS has closed more schools in the Jefferson cluster than all other school clusters combined. The district cites low enrollment in the neighborhood schools as the reason for closing them but until recently has ignored the transfer policy that is causing this disaster.

On January 14, the district released two options to shut down more neighborhood schools. In response to the proposals, several hundred parents, teachers and students rallied at Jefferson High School outside of a district-organized community forum.

At the rally organized by Social Equality Educators (SEE), former Jefferson teacher Adam Sanchez and Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan apologized for not uniting with parents earlier to stop school closures. "I think the teachers who are here today realize that we made a mistake in not fighting this fight with parents and community members earlier," Sanchez said.

In her speech, Sullivan reaffirmed this perspective:

My first year as president, I made a big mistake and I'm not going to let that happen again. We should have been outraged that they gave us one hour before announcing to the public that they were going to close Humboldt and Tubman. And we didn't yell and scream about it. That is not the way to engage a community, a neighborhood, parents, kids. That's not how you treat people.

After Sullivan spoke, SEE opened the microphone to a flood of parents and students who came to speak out against these racist school closures.

Some of the first to come up to the microphone were Jefferson High School students. Senior Uriah Boyd read a poem about the pride she had as a Jefferson student and her encounters with racist stereotypes about her school.

She exclaimed, "Urban stereotypes ain't got shit on our legacy–these rooms are oozing with excellence. And until you sat in a class and observed our discussions, your opinion is completely irrelevant."

Parent Virginia Walker spoke out demanding an end to the districts transfer policy, "They try to say that they cannot make individuals stay in their community neighborhood schools and that is a complete and utter lie. Because when I was younger, you were not allowed to transfer out of your boundaries, you had to stay in your neighborhood school."

It was particularly heart-wrenching to see several elementary school students from the schools on the chopping block plead to keep their schools open. As one young student told the crowd, "I just want to say, what ever school you're from, you should always think about other people and their schools."

After everyone was given the opportunity to speak out about the cuts, organizers led a march into the district's meeting. The throngs of protesters, plus several hundred additional attendees, were greeted with hot beverages, cookies and assorted goodies. Aimed at presenting a warm, hospitable face to the public, the district's snacks, free child care and warm-sounding rhetoric did little to disarm the unhappy crowd.

This was the first "rebalancing" meeting open to the entire Jefferson cluster community. Superintendent Carole Smith claimed that she wanted folks' "best thinking" on how the Portland School District could better serve their elementary and middle school students. Yet parents and families present could only weigh in on one of two pre-selected options–both of them containing proposed school closings.

A grandmother of a local student spoke first. "These meetings are meant to make us feel like we have input into the decision…How do we know our voices are actually being heard by PPS?" she said.

Parents, teachers and students took the floor one at a time to confront the PPS officials at the front. One parent exclaimed, "We want commitment! We want resources! We want to be treated like every other single cluster in this Portland District!"

A teacher in the cluster spoke next: "This has been called a problem of enrollment, of growth, of capture rates, or even of test scores. This is really a problem of segregation." The cafeteria erupted in applause as the crowd leapt to their feet.

"[The] transfer policy is racist, it's classist, and it's wrong!" said another parent, who was cheered by more applause. People felt confident declaring the inherent racism they had experienced and witnessed as people living and working in North Portland.

As the meeting continued, people boldly spoke out against the PPS transfer policy, and pressured the school board to stop enabling parents to simply opt their child out of his or her neighborhood school.

Students, teachers and families repeatedly identified the transfer policy as the root of the problem, claiming the policy and the district's proposed solutions target an already marginalized community of Blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities. They demanded that all students have access to an equal education and that the district invest in public neighborhood schools.

"Jefferson cluster history is a trend of disinvestment from the Jeff community schools," one parent said. "The discussion about enrollment balancing is a distraction–we need to have a discussion about equity. We can't close the achievement gap when we're closing our schools. Please address the problem of segregation in our schools."

In past meetings, the district successfully pitted school against school, but here parents and teachers stood together in solidarity. Many in the room were energized by the emerging alliances forged in real time through this struggle. Portland community members explained how the district sought to divide groups based on class and race and saw working together as the key to defeating these closures.

After this beautiful display of resistance, Superintendent Carole Smith withdrew her support for either option, both of which would have closed schools at the end of this year. But her revised plan put a new school on the chopping block, merging Chief Joseph Elementary School with Ockley Green K-8 the following year.

On February 11, the School Board held a meeting to discuss this new proposal, where again parents lambasted the district leadership. The meeting began with parent, student and teacher input. One of the first speakers, parent and community member Terrance Moses, told the board, "PPS has been good at one thing: proving itself untrustworthy to the Jefferson Cluster."

He went on to tell the board and superintendent, "We've had disruption for the last decade…don't force us to go through uncertainty year after year. Fix it now. Show us that you recognize the inequality that is blatantly obvious."

Another parent Eric Ridgway said, "These actions make me wonder how much of this process has been a sham designed to reach a predetermined conclusion." Community member Stephanie Lanning let the board know that if successful, the move would be "another chapter in PPS's upsetting history of shuffling, restructuring and closing schools in North and North East Portland."

After hearing the community's outrage for over an hour, the board pulled back their support for the proposal.

Toward the end of the discussion, Smith agreed to change the proposal so that Chief Joseph and all other neighborhood schools would be spared from closure. The final vote on the matter will happen on February 25.

Although Smith is still recommending Chief Joseph and Ockley Green consolidate as one neighborhood school on two campuses, the decision to spare any neighborhood school from closure is a huge victory for parents, teachers and students who have been organizing against the district's racist closures since they were announced.

There are several possible explanations for why the school board and superintendent backed down relatively quickly from their plan. Perhaps they underestimated the amount of anger boiling up against school instability in the Jefferson cluster. Maybe it's because several school board members are up for re-election in May. Another likely reason is that they were frightened by the growing coalition between parents, students and teachers at a time when the board is preparing to divide the community from teachers over the looming union contract.

It will be important that parents, teachers, and students stay united in the battles ahead to defend and strengthen our public schools. As politicians from both parties continue to push through deep cuts to education and social services, struggles against school closures are an important aspect of emerging working-class resistance.

Throughout the country, communities are increasingly banning together to stand up against attempts to close schools for Black and brown children. People are recognizing the need for alliances and for real organization. Sharp conclusions about class and race are coming to the forefront in community discussions like these.

Working people are radicalizing through this process, and learning that if we are united in struggle we can win. As one Portland resident declared, "I am a parent, a teacher at PPS, and after all this, I am proud to call myself an activist."

This article originally appeared on SocialistWorker.org.

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