Educational Futures

I just attended the first meeting of a parent/teacher/student group at my daughter’s public, science/math/technology magnet school—Winterhaven. The group was formed to deal with a mandate from Portland Public Schools to grow the school’s student body, and then necessarily move, or renovate, because the school’s current building can only serve about 360 students.

Now that I have school-age kids, the whole question of public education is taking on a new relevance for me. My own educational background included being “home schooled” for grades 1-6 thanks to my parents’ realization that our local Colorado public schools were inadequate, and attending Open Living, a unique public alternative school in grades 7-12. Based on my own “alternative” experience, I’m a big believer in the necessity of quality, public education for all to support democracy and civil society.

A large part of the discussion started by PPS’s mandate to Winterhaven has been focused on that particular school, and/or what building it should be located in.

I find my thoughts moving away from these immediate concerns to what it will take to make public education in Portland (or elsewhere) sufficiently vibrant to continue to attract students like my daughters and at the same time serve the largest possible population.

So far, I find PPS’s focus on standardizing school profiles and sizes to be at odds with my knowledge that it is in fact options and alternatives that attract me to public education in Portland. I just don’t buy the idea that our desire for educational equity will be best served by making all schools the same. I believe that drive will lead all schools to the lowest common denominator, and soon drive the middle class away from public education even more dramatically than it already is.

Once the middle class gives up on public schools, I fear a downward spiral where fewer resources generate increasingly poor educational opportunities. I don’t think such a situation will be good for anyone, least of all the less advantaged in whose name school standardization is adopted.

A better path will be to support and celebrate diversity, not just in our public student body, but in the schools themselves. One school might make its mark as a vibrant neighborhood school; another might be an arts magnet. Each should have it’s own identity.

The job of  PPS Superintendent Phillips and the School Board should be to support school diversity, not standardize. If they don’t think there are enough resources to support school diversity now, wait until the middle class pulls out of public education entirely and see how many resources are left.

Given the worthy people around the table with me in this Winterhaven conversation, I have faith that we can produce good recommendations. And in an ideal world, PPS will have the vision and resources to make some of them happen.