Sunday, September 28, 2014

An Open Letter to Portland Public School Board on Boundary Review

Portland Public School Board Members,

I'm writing to urge you to complete the District Wide Boundary Review Process as soon as possible.  At [my neighborhood school] overcrowding is materially degrading educational quality and school leadership is not adequate to deal with the problem on its own.  Boundary Review offers immediate relief for enrollment disparities.  But it isn't enough.

Within PPS there are currently high reputation or "good" schools that are overcrowded, and low reputation or "bad" schools that suffer from under-enrollment.  Merely increasing the catchment area of "bad" schools and shrinking the catchment of "good" schools won't work in the long term.  The reputations still exist and families will react by finding a way to enroll in the "good" school such as by moving or maintaining an address in the new catchment area, or they'll switch to a charter school or out of PPS entirely.  I don't think you'll ever convince parents with means to go to a "bad" school.  Enrollment balancing in the long term requires addressing the reputations that make schools "good" or "bad" in the first place.

Reputation in my view is primarily a function of parents.  Reputation doesn't matter to kids, they don't care about financial hierarchy or relative privilege.  Nor are they in a position to make decisions based on reputation, they go where their parents send them.  It is parents who create and react to school reputation.  Breaking down the process that creates "good" schools and "bad" schools requires changing the way parents interact with schools. 

From my experience the two institutions that most involve parents are the PTA and Foundations.  Generally speaking, the former is a mechanism by which parents can improve their schools through donations of time and skills, the latter is a way to improve schools through donations of money.  Both resources materially impact the student experience, providing some factual basis for differences in reputation.  Disparity is reinforced psychologically; participants in parent groups commit to "their" school, they make sacrifices for "their" school.  People are proud of their sacrifices and attribute to them value and distinction, which contributes to a negative view of schools lacking that distinction.  And disparity is reinforced socially, because parents who are passionate enough about schools to make sacrifices on their behalf want to be with other parents similarly engaged.  Those dynamics create a positive feedback loop, particularly when applied to a backdrop of economic segregation in which some neighborhoods have much greater resources to donate to schools than others.  The end result is schools with disparate reputations, often wildly out of sync with the underlying reality.

I think the solution to this problem is to loosen the connection between parent organizations and specific schools.  Instead of silos defined by school, PTAs and Foundations should be organized over a wider area with a mission to promote the welfare of all schools within that area equally.  Dividing the district into four or five areas, each would be broad enough to incorporate an economically diverse population and to retain that diversity over the long term. 

Resources would be spread more evenly, rather than being concentrated in the neighborhoods where those with money or the ability to have a stay at home parent happen to live.  It would allow those who are passionate about schools to find community and support regardless of where they live.  And it would retain a degree of autonomy and local connection.  Parents wouldn't be donating to an anonymous, monolithic "PPS" but to the local area schools that that their children or friends of their children attended.  If boundary rebalancing were broken down by area, they would also be the schools parents' children might attend in the future as a result of enrollment balancing.  I think this would create a culture of investment in schools, directed not just where people with resources live but where investment is needed. 

With regards to boundary changes, it would make the switch to a different school far less intimidating.  The new school would be familiar and less likely to carry stigma.  At the same time there would be less social loss, parents would maintain connections with those at the old school through the broader parent organizations and have the same access to their resources.  Families subject to boundary change would be grounded and supported by community, instead of feeling like they're being voted off the island like they are now.

It could be argued that this approach is geared too much towards the subset of parents that are active in PTA and Foundations.  But I'd argue it is exactly that group that is most influential in determining school reputation.  They are the ones who care enough about educational quality to act on it.  They're the ones least likely to accept going to a "bad" school and who will not only pursue alternatives, but promote them to all their friends reinforcing disparities in reputation.  People seek community one way or another.

So in summary, please complete the boundary changes as quickly as possible.  But don't stop there, because it won't be enough.  Look at the dynamics that make rebalancing such a traumatic process and find ways to ameliorate them.  I think doing that will create a stronger, more equitable school system positioned to thrive rather than merely survive.  For the 21st century, Portland needs no less.

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