Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Portland 101: Portland schools are 'learning to succeed'

Published in the Portland Phoenix
Portland's public-school employees and leaders are working hard to meet the needs of every student in the system, but when asking themselves whether they've accomplished that, "the answer is 'Not yet,'" according to School Board chairman Kate Snyder, who spoke to the League of Young Voters' Portland 101 class last week.
Snyder is just finishing the first year of her second three-year term as an at-large member of the board; she was elected in the fall of 2007, just a few months after the school department reported that it had overspent its budget. In the aftermath of that, the superintendent and business manager left the district. Also, in 2008, a new state law took effect requiring voter approval of the school budget in an annual referendum (in Portland, that's in addition to approval by the City Council, because the local charter requires it).
That meant big-time public scrutiny of school spending, and a real need for the district to rebuild the trust of the community it serves. Snyder says that effort has gone well, though she noted (in the words of the district's semi-recent new motto) "we're learning to succeed."
Admitting that only 80 percent of high-school-age students actually graduate from Portland schools (which is roughly the statewide average), Snyder spent a decent amount of time talking about some of the problems the district has; it was largely as a way to talk about what she sees as the big successes. For example, as recently as two years ago, the district "collected no meaningful data on student performance" — and what was known was almost useless because "each school did different assessments," so comparing student performance between schools and throughout the district was impossible.
Now, though, the district is "more data driven," she says, with standard testing and other assessments in every school, which allows administrators to see on-the-ground specifics, such as the low level of minority students in Advanced Placement classes at Portland High School. They can also see broader views: Not surprising, since it follows a national trend over many decades, is the fact that "student test data largely reflects socioeconomic data in the neighborhoods," Snyder says.
The district is working on improving access, largely by "creating teacher-student relationships," which increase the amount of time students get individualized or small-group attention. It's an incremental process, she says, with new programs often being phased in over several years to keep costs from increasing too rapidly.