Volume 1, Issue 3: May 2009

High schools are a hot topic. As our seniors get ready to don their robes and collect their diplomas, it reinforces the necessity of strengthening our high school system so that no student fails to graduate because he or she wasn’t challenged, inspired or supported adequately, or because his or her school couldn’t provide access to high quality courses.

I hope this issue of Extra Credit contributes to our current high school discussion with new information and ways to make sure our high schools help all of our students prepare for where life takes them next.

Carole's Signature Carole Smith PPS Superintendentsuperintendent@pps.k12.or.us

1. How PPS arrived at its Big Ideas for Better High Schools

Rather than pursuing campus-by-campus reforms, Portland Public Schools is engaged in a large-scale effort to examine and improve its high school system as a whole. Principals, teachers, students, families and the community have been tapped to help develop a system that better prepares all of our students for success. The effort is grounded in research to understand the state of our current system, an analysis of what works best for students and the experiences of school districts nationwide.

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Following is a summary of the full report, “The big ideas behind the Big IdeasPDF icon.”

To understand the current system’s strengths and flaws, district staff analyzed enrollment, graduation rates and other data; performed national comparisons, and surveyed students and parents, PPS employees and citizens.

Key finding: The quality of education that our high school students receive varies by the school they attend, a situation that has developed over time.

  • High school demographics have historically reflected residential patterns of race and wealth in the city. Combined with the district’s liberal transfer policy and the required transfer options under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the result has been a set of sought-after schools and a set of less popular schools that continue to bleed enrollment.
  • The trend leads to unequal access to a high quality education and narrows student options based on where they live.
  • The trend also means that district resources are heavily focused on shoring up struggling schools, straining resources for the rest.
  • And the success of students from the sought-after schools is also underwhelming with only a quarter to a half of their graduates completing college six years later.
  • Finally, students in the more sought-after schools tend to be white and more affluent, impeding the understanding and sharing of class and cultural differences and the life skills that come from real-world diversity as well as potentially isolating non-majority students to the detriment of their educations.

Chart of Neighborhood Population Attending School

From these challenges came four objectives to increase equity and stability:

  • Increase student engagement so that more students are inspired and involved in their education.
  • Increase graduation rates/decrease dropout rates.
  • Close the achievement gap so that race and ethnicity no longer predict success.
  • Ensure that all schools are in high demand by students and staff.

Additional research, detailed in the full reportPDF icon, led to essential elements of successful high schools that addressed our four objectives:

  • Every student has access to high quality, essential courses, programs and school structures. Every student has access to art, music, an upper-level world language, calculus and statistics.
  • Every school effectively helps students explore careers.
  • Every school better reflects the diversity of the broader community.
  • Every school focuses on really knowing our students.
  • The high school system offers different options for different student needs, from strong schools close to home to specialized ones with a particular focus.
  • Every school has connections to the community to boost student achievement.

From the essential elements, PPS devised three Big Ideas for Better High Schools. The full reportPDF icon highlights the research behind each.

Big Idea #1: Special focus campuses

Ninth and 10th-graders attend small academies on their neighborhood campus that are personal, nurturing and familiar. Students move as a group, sharing three classes with the same teachers. In 11th and 12th grades, students choose from at least three career/interest pathways on their neighborhood campus.

Big Idea #2: Neighborhood high schools and flagship magnets

Students attend their neighborhood school while having access to a wide range of courses and activities to deepen engagement. This collection of larger neighborhood high schools includes a few flagship magnet schools open to all students in the school district. All high schools offer a wide cross-section of similar courses and programs, but the magnets appeal to students looking for a deeper focus in a specialty area.

Big Idea #3: Regional flex network of schools

Each region has different types of schools, including a large school with a variety of core and elective courses, small schools with specific themes and an alternative program. Schedules are structured so students would have the option of traveling within their home region to maximize learning opportunities and take the courses they want and need. Online courses and credit by proficiency options are just some of the more flexible choices.

PPS invited the community and staff to weigh these ideas at three meetings in late April and early May. A final, in-depth community session is at Jefferson High School Saturday May 16, 8:30 a.m. to noon. In June, Superintendent Carole Smith will choose a model for the high school system for implementation in coming years.

To learn more go to the PPS High School System Redesign page.

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2. Parents, staff and students share their ideas about Big Ideas
Click for a video pop up of the Big Ideas meeting

Equity among schools — in access to rigorous courses and expectations of students — rose to the top in community discussions with Portland Public Schools about how to reshape its high school system. It is a strong statement about what Portlanders value and believe public schools should deliver, as well as a comment on how out of alignment the district’s high schools have become.

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Other common themes at the three meetings, held in April and early May at Wilson, Franklin and Madison high schools: Balance the value of neighborhood schools vs. choice, listen to students, avoid one-size-fits-all designs, and support personal attention, close relationships with teachers, diversity and adequate funding.

And participants posed a key question: How would sports and extracurricular activities fit in the new system?

More than 250 parents, students, teachers, administrators, education advocacy leaders and community members attended at least one meeting and spent 2½ hours learning about and wrestling with the district’s three “big ideas” for how to design its high school system. A fourth, more in-depth community discussion runs from 8:30 to noon Saturday, May 16, at Jefferson High School. (Planning and materials for the meeting were supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

The school district will use the feedback to choose a high school model — which could include a hybrid of the three ideas — that Superintendent Carole Smith will announce in June for implementation in coming years.

The implementation phase will involve additional intensive community input to bring the Big Ideas to the school level, including a plan for transitioning current students and programs as changes are put into place.

“These ideas are works in progress,” moderator Zeke Smith, chief of staff to Superintendent Smith, told participants. “They will help us get to where we need to get.”

Equity, diversity viewed as priorities

The call for equity came from many.

“We want a good, well-rounded program in every school,” said a parent at the Franklin High School meeting . “Every school has to have a well-rounded, quality program.”

At the Madison meeting, a parent introduced himself as a third-generation Jefferson High School graduate and spoke of the teachers and coaches at Jefferson who got him on track in his life. Now, he said, he would like his own children to attend Jefferson but, worried about the quality of the education there, has sent his oldest son elsewhere.

“I can’t walk by Jefferson now without my heart breaking,” he said. “We have to have a district of equity that offers the same thing across the board.”

Closely related to equity was the concept of diversity. Many participants at each meeting emphasized the need for racial and ethnic diversity in our high schools, allowing students to learn from each other and preparing students to thrive after high school with people of many backgrounds.

“Diversity is probably the single most important thing,” said one parent, summarizing the views at his table at the Madison meeting. “We decided we wanted neighborhood schools that attracted students from around them — everyone working together to provide diverse opportunities for diverse group of students to sample things, to find what works best for them.”

Yet many questioned how to achieve equity and diversity — especially in neighborhood schools — in a city significantly segregated by race and class. Some suggested redrawing school boundaries — even considering boundaries that cross the Willamette River.

As one parent pointed out, achieving equity may mean changes in some parts of the school district, but should result in full course offerings at every high school.

Neighborhood schools, relationships are key

Many spoke of maintaining neighborhood schools and the sense of community they bring. A number of participants favored large, comprehensive high schools because they allow for a large enough student population and teaching staff to provide a wide range of course options.

Yet many students or recent graduates as well as adults emphasized close relationships with teachers and smaller schools.

“If you learn how to make academies (small schools) work, that’s great. I still have personal relationships with teachers to this day,” said a recent graduate of Cleveland High School who spent his freshman year in a ninth-grade academy and credits the experience with helping him transition into high school.

A parent at the Madison meeting echoed the theme: “Develop what’s best for our kids and don’t get caught up in our adult need for choice. Relationships are what are going to make this work.”

What about the Big Ideas?

Even as larger themes surfaced in the meetings, participants also grappled with each of the three Big Ideas for a new high school system during table discussions.

Big Idea #1: Special focus campuses

Ninth and 10th-graders would attend small academies on their neighborhood campus that would be personal, nurturing and familiar. Students would move as a group, sharing three classes with the same teachers. In 11th and 12th grades, students would choose from at least three career/interest pathways on their neighborhood campus.

Views: Pro

  • The personal approach with ninth- and 10th-graders helps them transition into high school and find their place.
  • The chance to drill down into interest areas in 11th and 12th grade would help keep many students tapped in to school and classes seem relevant.
  • There are lots of opportunities for contextual learning.
  • This option creates a common, democratizing experience for all students.
  • It’s the most flexible option for responding to a changing economy and technology.

Views: Con

  • How do students satisfy their core curriculum needs once they move into their special focus? Can there be a liberal arts special focus option?
  • What happens to kids who don’t know what they want to focus on? Kids shouldn’t have to choose a focus at this age.
  • The size of the school is really large (the district estimates 1,400 to 1,600 students). It’s hard to imagine how students could succeed in such a big school.
  • Themes — like health care and engineering — sound very vocational. I’m interested in being a doctor, but I don’t want all my classes to be in health care. That’s what college is for; that’s what graduate school is for.
  • The career pathways that the district implemented in the past didn’t work for many students who just picked something because they had to.

Big Idea #2:Neighborhood high schools & flagship magnets

Students would attend their neighborhood school with access to a wide range of courses and activities that would be similar districtwide. Unlike today, students would not be able to transfer to different neighborhood schools. Several flagship magnets, with a special focus, would also be available to all students in the school district.

Views: Pro

  • This approach emphasizes school identity and spirit and a sense of place and community that further supports students.
  • Large schools allow for large teaching staff and more course options.
  • Families move into neighborhoods because of their schools, reinforcing their commitment to both.
  • Magnets would make it possible to craft programs to the community, allowing for both strong neighborhood schools with a sense of place and strong magnets reflecting local interests and identity.

Views: Con

  • Is this model the same that we have now — weaker neighborhood schools would be further depleted by the draw of magnet schools.
  • Neighborhood schools can be large and impersonal. (The district’s estimate is 1,100 students in a neighborhood school.)
  • How do you ensure equity and diversity when it’s so dependent on the neighborhood demographics?
  • What if a student didn’t want a magnet school but didn’t like his neighborhood school? We need to still allow for transfers, but then how do you keep neighborhood schools strong?

Big Idea #3: Regional flex network of schools

Each region would have different types of schools, including a large school with a variety of core and elective courses, small schools with specific themes and an alternative program. Students could travel within their home region to maximize options. Online courses and credit by proficiency also would be available.

Views: Pro

  • Each big school in the region has equity. Region has opportunity to decide what small schools will be. This is the most appealing option because it’s quality for everyone. But how would these regions be split, and who decides?
  • Kids could tailor their day to work for their needs and interests; flexibility provides opportunity to meet more kids’ needs.
  • To the extent that students travel between locations, they might become better at using TriMet and more confident in traversing their city.
  • The model may appeal to kids less interested in a mainstream experience.

Views: Con

  • This model favors kids who can navigate a range of options and locations.
  • Students wouldn’t feel school spirit if they were traveling to different locations and didn’t identify with one school.
  • Students would spend time traveling, eating into class time and creating an opportunity to skip class.
  • It seems the model would hurt students who need or want all their courses in one location.
  • The option offers too much choice for students at that age.
  • How would athletics work in this model?

Students are powerful voices

The meetings predominantly drew adults, but about 20 students were in attendance throughout the three sessions. Those who came spoke with passion and insight. Some of their written feedback included:

  • Smaller classes, smaller schools, more choices. The perfect school: Small classes with students who love what they’re learning.
  • Our schools need money (Roosevelt) because it’s not fair that the rich people get better things at their school.
  • High schoolers’ biggest fear is commitment. Why do you think high school relationships never last? (noting that making 11th and 12th graders commit to a special focus is unadvisable)
  • I like the idea of having smaller schools that have a main focus on education.
  • At every high school, there should be after school activities. To ensure the work gets done, students should do assignments that are fun. High school should open doors to the future and have activities that are part of the present or future.
  • Have many teachers, for more one-on-one, because some students need it.
  • Everyone is included. More help with college classes. Off-campus lunch. Classes at PCC, PSU, etc. More community involvement. More engaging activities in class.

Parting messages

The meetings had an air of both urgency and commitment as participants dug into the details of the ideas and shared their larger views, many staying after the meeting to talk more or write out their comments. The clear message: Portlanders care deeply about the future of their high schools and want to be a part of shaping them.

“The process brought people together to share what mattered to them,” one participant wrote. “I appreciated hearing other points of view and working toward a common understanding of the situation we face.”

“Bravo,” said another. “I got more out of this than I thought I would. This was a great way to focus on core issues. My only wish was that this had been more publicized in advance to get more parental involvement.”

Participants also spoke up during the wrap-up portion of each meeting with some strong statements.

“Whatever options are developed, you need to do it well,” summarized a presenter in the wrap-up portion of one meeting. “Keep the promises, and do it within the context of available resources.”

A former Marshall teacher, who lives near Jefferson with her young family and now works at Lincoln, gave this direct message:

 “We need to be bold and brave and get started right now. It’s time for hard choices, and it’s time for action.”

Read additional summaries of the April 20 meeting PDF icon and the April 29 and May 2 meetings PDF icon. View the introductory Big Ideas video and the shorter videos of each Big Idea.

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“I would say that by having teachers who are enthusiastic and happy to teach are a must!” High school girl
3. Study of Class of 2007 shows more students earning diplomas
High school student

An in-depth analysis of the high school class of 2007 shows more Portland Public Schools students graduating from high school than three years earlier. Even more promising: The increase in graduation rates extended across every racial group.

Two years ago, Portland Public Schools became one of the first school districts in the country to use a new methodology to understand how individual students fare in school — and ultimately, who graduates from high school and who does not.

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More than a simple snapshot in time, the cohort study tracked the progress of individual students who were part of the 2007 districtwide graduating class. The goal: to determine the measures that most closely predicted if a student would leave high school without graduating.

This year, PPS hired researcher Mary Beth Celio ofNorthwest Decision Resources to repeat the study. In her preliminary results, Celio found that the cohort graduation rate had increased by more than 6 percentage points, to 63.2 percent.

“I am encouraged that Portland Public Schools is on the right track, and more of our students are graduating,” said Superintendent Carole Smith, “but we still have far to go, particularly for many students of color and those from low-income homes.

“This study is our chance to move forward by looking backward. By sifting through our past results, we will better be able to identify the early warning signs that a student may not graduate, so we can make sure that we move in with the support students need to stay on track to a diploma.”

GRADUATION RATES 2004 2007 Improvement
All students   57.0% 63.2% 6.2%
  Graduation in 4 years 54.0% 57.0% 3.0%
  Additional graduates in 5th year 3.0% 6.2% 3.2%
  Female 59.8% 66.2% 6.4%
  Male 54.4% 60.6% 6.2%
  American Indian 39.2% 50.9% 11.7%
  Asian/Pacific Islander 64.5% 70.8% 6.3%
  African American 49.0% 55.3% 6.3%
  Hispanic 38.9% 46.2% 7.3%
  White 61.7% 68.3% 6.6%

Wake-up call

The first cohort study, for the class of 2004, focused a spotlight on Portland Public Schools’ dropout problem. It spurred increased community and school district support for students. PPS high school administrators designed intervention programs to support students whose performance on eighth-grade assessment tests and in their core classes indicated they might have trouble staying on track to graduate.

Two years later, every PPS high school has programs in place to help such students as they transition into high school. Some offer summer programs for incoming ninth-graders to help them learn leadership and academic skills. Others pair adult mentors with students at risk, or offer after-school tutoring and academic support programs.

The community, too, has responded. Through Connected by 25 and its signature program, Ninth Grade Counts, more than 50 community organizations — employers, nonprofits, other governments — have signed on to help students across the city.

Promising results

Although preliminary, results from the new cohort study are promising. The full study, including an executive summary and technical report, will be completed and published by the end of June. That research, when complete, will provide valuable information on where and when risk escalates, thus providing warning signals for students as early as in sixth grade.

Using those warning signals, some students in the class of 2007 could have been considered high dropout risks; instead they went on to earn their diplomas. By looking at those students and where they went to school, the research may help Portland Public Schools evaluate which  programs are most effective at helping students beat the odds and go on to graduate.

According to Celio, the main point is not to calculate a graduation rate, but rather to help target support to students who need it most, when they need it most, so that they succeed in high school.

“The true value of any cohort study,” she wrote, “is not the class-to-class comparisons outlined in these preliminary results, but the data that can focus and spur action to improve results for students.”

Read the preliminary results report by Mary Beth Celio, M.A., Senior Researcher, Northwest Decision Resource.

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4. What is the real graduation rate?

Researcher Mary Beth Celio calls most graduation rates “little more than educated guesses,” and for good reason. Most calculations rely on snapshots of student enrollment at different high school grades in different years, and all depend on busy high school staff members to gather and enter students’ data accurately and consistently.

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Students earning a GED don’t count as graduates — but do they count as dropouts? What about special education students earning a modified diploma? The answers are often different from state to state, even from school district to school district, which makes national comparisons tricky.

Every method has its uses and its drawbacks. These are a few common measures, and how the PPS class of 2007 would stack up:

National Governors Association Compact 68.1%
Manhattan Institute 65.5%
Oregon Department of Education 65.4%
2007 Cohort Study 63.2%
Cumulative Promotion Index 61.3%

To see how the formulas are determined, refer to a recent report by Mary Beth Celio of Northwest Decision ResourcesPDF icon. And read more about modified diplomas in PPSPDF icon.

“More choices based on personal interest, for what you want to pursue.” Middle school girl
5. Cities confront graduation crisis; research puts Portland in perspective

Compared to other large-city school districts, Portland Public Schools has been more successful at raising graduation rates and comes closer to matching the performance of schools in its suburbs, according to a nationwide study released in April.

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The report, titled “Closing the Graduation Gap,” was commissioned by the America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization headed by Alma Powell and her husband, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and dedicated to improving American graduation rates.

Relying on school district data from 2005 compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, researchers analyzed the graduation rate in the primary school district in America’s 50 largest cities. They used a standard method for calculating graduation rates, the cumulative promotion index.

These are among the findings specific to Portland Public Schools (Portland is the 31st largest city):

Cities are in crisis, with low graduation rates.
Across the country, the average graduation rate was 71 percent; in the 50 largest cities the rate was only 53 percent. The PPS rate for 2005, as calculated by researchers, was 68.5 percent – ranking PPS the sixth highest among major cities’ school districts.

Urban graduation rates have improved over the last decade.
Nationally, large-city graduation rates rose by 4.4 percentage points from 1995 to 2005. In the same decade, Portland Public Schools gained 13.1 percentage points — the fifth largest growth in graduation rate.

City graduation rates are far worse than those in their suburbs.
Cities on average have an 18 percent gap between their graduation rates and those of their suburbs (59 to 77 percent). In 2005, PPS was only 3.7 percentage points behind its suburbs (70.5 to 74.2 percent).

Education is crucial to economic recovery.
In the 50 largest cities, high school graduates are 30 percent more likely to be steadily employed and 50 percent less likely to live in poverty, and on average earn 71 percent more money. Those statistics affect the individuals, but they also affect the economic vitality of the entire community. The results for Portland indicate a weaker correlation between earnings and education; high school graduates are 35 percent less likely to live in poverty, 13.8 percent more likely to be steadily employed, and earn 47 percent more income.

Read the full report, “Cities in Crisis: Closing the Graduation Gap. Educational and Economic Conditions in America’s Largest Cities ,” by Christopher B. Swanson, Ph.D., Director, Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

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6. What works? A closer look at three high schools getting graduation results

There’s no silver bullet for high schools — no one program that works for every student. In Portland Public Schools, several models are demonstrating success in helping students graduate: Grant High School, a large comprehensive school that consistently maintains high graduation rates among its diverse students; SEIS, a small school on the Roosevelt Campus with graduation rates higher than the PPS average; and MLC, a district-run alternative with its own unique philosophy, and the highest graduation rate last year of all PPS schools.

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Grant High School
1,553 students, 91.5 percent graduation rate

Portland Public Schools’ largest high school offers a huge variety of academic and extracurricular choices, and focuses attention on freshmen to help them connect with teachers and fellow students.

Size matters. With the largest student body among PPS high schools, Northeast Portland’s Grant also has the most teachers and can afford a tremendous variety of classes from standard ninth-grade English through a host of Advanced Placement and elective classes.

The challenging classes and high expectations help Grant’s students succeed. But Principal Joseph Malone says extracurricular activities, too, have a “humongous” impact on keeping students engaged in school and on track to graduation: “They have a reason and a connection to come to school.”

The school seems to have it all: championship sports teams, band, chorus, mock trial and Constitution teams, plays, dance and more than 30 student clubs including knitting, environmental, bowling and snowboarding clubs.

In the grand scheme of things, Grant isn’t all that large. Some high schools in surrounding districts to the east and in Beaverton are close to twice its size, and even Grant during the peak of the Baby Boom edged close to 3,000 students.

But students now arriving from far smaller middle and K-8 schools can sometimes feel lost in the mix.

“It seemed really big, and the halls seemed really crowded,” recalls senior Hannah Olson of her arrival at Grant. “I was overwhelmed because there was so much to do, but excited at the same time.”

Grant works hard to help its entering student capitalize on the excitement — and avoid being overwhelmed.

For eight years, it has offered ninth-grade communities, breaking down each freshman class of more than 400 students into groups of about 85 to 90 students. Each community — known as G, R, A, N and T — takes Biology, English and Modern World History from the same three teachers. And each community is assigned one of Grant’s five counselors, who will stay with those same students through graduation. Those teachers get to know the students, and the kids get to know each other.

Vice Principal Kim Patterson says she deliberately mixes up the students in each academy, giving each a true cross-section of the population: no tracking here.

On a recent morning, eight students from the A community gathered in a hallway outside English class, practicing their modern English translation of a scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” All Grant freshmen now, those eight came from seven schools and had never met before, but by May they were familiar classmates.

“It was a chance to meet new people,” says 14-year-old Mallory Oslund, “and stick with them, and see familiar faces throughout the year.”

Jordan Shellmire, 15, followed his sister to Grant from Beaumont Middle School. But she came before Grant established communities. “It was more chaotic,” Jordan says. “It wasn’t as smooth a transition.”

The community teachers, counselors and special education staff meet regularly for shared planning and team time. They touch base on lesson plans and curriculum, and develop ways to support and challenge talented and gifted students and those who are struggling. They check in with each other about individual students: who’s not getting their work done, who seems distracted, troubled or simply bored, who’s skipping class. As a community team, they decide how to take action: who can call home, which teacher might check in with the student, who can arrange extra support outside of class.

Every community class has at least one student mentor — a high-achieving senior who attends the class, helps students with their learning and even teaching mini-lessons to support the teacher.

Down the hall from the “Romeo and Juliet” practice, Hannah Olson works with freshman Dalon Goodman, who had missed a couple days of school. Dalon says he appreciates the personal attention and help, which would be tough to get from his teacher during the class.

“They help with my work and make sure I understand,” he says. “I’m going to catch up on my work and get it done.”

Principal Malone also makes sure he adds his own personal touch to the campus. In this year’s entering class, 145 students were identified as “academic priority” students, based on their eighth-grade performance in their core classes and the eighth-grade state assessments. One by one, Malone is meeting with students in his office, talking with them about their goals and how they can improve in the classroom. Not only does he get their commitment, but he has the students take their plans to their parents — building buy-in to help their high school students succeed.

Ninth-grade communities, student mentors and personal attention: All help students make the most of what Grant has to offer while creating a more personal transition. And that helps students stay on track to earn their diploma, Malone says. “To me,” he says, “the freshman year is crucial.”

Spanish English International School (SEIS)
225 students, 71.1 percent graduation

With rigorous courses and teachers and staff that offer individual attention, this small school beats the district average, although it educates students that typically are not well-served by PPS high schools.

The Spanish English International School on the Roosevelt Campus could be a case study on the power of high expectations, wraparound support and individual attention in raising graduation rates.

SEIS’ incoming students are not predestined to earn a diploma. Most would be the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone go on to college. Almost two-thirds of students are deemed “academic priority” because they failed a core course in eighth grade, didn’t perform well on their state assessments or need emotional support because of personal or family situations.

The statistics go on: 80 percent from low-income homes; almost 30 percent currently  learning English  (others already learned English as their second language), and more than half Latino — all populations that Portland Public Schools often fails to get to graduation.

But the power of SEIS is that the teachers and staff there don’t see the statistics: They see individual students, with individual needs and individual strengths.

And they care enough to help them succeed. Despite the apparent disadvantages facing the school and its students, SEIS posted a 71.1 percent graduation rate last year, almost three points higher than the PPS average.

Leo Colegio, finishing his first year as SEIS administrator, says part of the success is due to asking a lot of the students with rigorous and interesting school work — and supporting them to achieve more than they might have thought possible. “We try to give them something for them to really bite into,” he says.

  • SEIS is offering six Advanced Placement (AP) classes this year, up from three just a couple of years ago.
  • The school offers AVID, an elective course that prepares students with the skills they need to be successful in college: learning to take notes, do research, organize their work and develop critical thinking and work habits.
  • Electives challenge students to look toward their future, whether through the Judicial Systems/Mock Trial classes that work with volunteer attorneys, or the Bilingual Future Educators class or Small Business Economics.
  • True to the school’s international theme, all students must take four years of Spanish. The four-year track for native Spanish speakers leads up to AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Literature; those classes offer a chance for Spanish speakers to excel at reading literature and writing, even if they may still struggle in English.

“Our teachers are extremely focused on rigor,” says teacher Hallie Gleason. “Any kid can achieve. There’s a real focus on that and a real energy toward that. There’s a constant challenge to kids as they walk in the door.”

But that’s only part of the story. Colegio attributes some of the rest to persistence and paperwork. Across PPS, when students leave school, few bother to withdraw formally. Three-quarters just stop showing up. Those no-shows count against a school’s graduation rate.

At SEIS, the secretary, counselor and a teacher set to work part-time on checking the student records, and trying to track down the missing students. With other teachers’ help, they talked to each no-show student’s teachers, friends, parents, cousins — anyone who might know where the student was. Some had dropped out, but others moved out of state or entered a different school. A few came back to school. Reducing the unknowns helped the numbers.

That persistent attitude and outreach continues. Colegio heard that one student stopped coming to school after she got married.

“I called the house and talked to her,” he said. “She said she’d be in on Monday, and she’s been coming in every since.”

The school wraps support around its students. Incoming freshmen who struggled in eighth grade — whether in their core courses or on state assessments — are eligible for Step Up after-school mentoring and tutoring. A full-time social worker on campus helps connect kids to counseling, rent aid, food boxes, gang prevention referrals and mentorships. And the entire staff keeps an eye out for the juniors and seniors most at risk to not graduate.

Every Thursday students have a 45-minute advisory period — time to check in about issues coming up, work on their study skills and to make sure everyone’s still on track.

SEIS teachers — and there are only 16 in all — meet at least weekly by grade level to compare notes on students and develop action plans for those who may be slipping. One teacher might call home, another will pull the student’s work samples, and another will sit down with the student. All to figure out, as Colegio says: “What do we have to do for this one kid. My sense is these kids would be lost in a comprehensive. They’d just stop coming.”

Senior Shelby Davis agrees. She spent two years on transfer to a much larger PPS high school, with “too many people, and overcrowded classrooms.”

“There were some teachers who cared,” she says. “But at lot of the teachers were more like: This is my job. I have to do this.” She skipped school often, and got into trouble. That school’s counselor suggested she’d be better off back at her neighborhood school. They were right.

At SEIS, Shelby is taking Mock Trial, AP English Composition and AP Environmental Science, and she wouldn’t dare miss a day of school because she’d fall behind. Next year she’s heading to Portland State University.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” she said. “And everyone’s friendly here.”

Metropolitan Learning Center K-12,
135 high school students, 96.8 percent graduation

MLC, an alternative school, is creative and flexible in its highly personalized program, which gives students freedom and responsibility for their own education and yields the district’s highest graduation rate.

The Metropolitan Learning Center is unique, and has been since its founding in 1968. Nestled in a former elementary school in urban Northwest Portland, MLC offers an alternative for students and families who might not fit in at PPS’ regular schools.

How is MLC different? As the application materials state, the academic program focuses on “experiential learning, character development, service to the community and the pleasures of life and learning,” for what it calls a “project and adventure based learning environment.”

MLC is the only public school in the city serving kindergarten through 12th grade — and the high school lockers are deliberately outside the youngest kids’ classroom to mix the age groups.

All students and staff are on a first-name basis. There are no hall passes, and middle and high school students have an hour for lunch and can go off-campus. There are no grades, but teachers give regular progress reports and students must meet a high benchmark of proficiency in a subject, 85 percent, to earn full credit for a class. All students annually compile and present a portfolio of their learning.

As Principal Scotto — or Frank, as everyone knows him — says, it’s not for everyone:  “You have to buy in to our philosophy here.”

Delaney Green, a graduating senior, came to MLC after starting at a much larger suburban high school, where she felt treated like student “number 32259” and says too many teachers treated their work as “just a an 8-to-3 job.” At MLC, she said, “the sense of community and friendship and companion is just so much more. … You’re going to be part of their life and they’re going to be part of your life.”

Her classmate Alex Clemens agrees: “Education is valued, not industrialized.”

The school doesn’t accept students through the district’s choice lottery. Rather, a separate application process requires a letter of interest for the student and from a parent or guardian; a letter of reference from the student’s current school; and a signed statement of understanding about the school’s mission and philosophy.

If all that sounds selective, and thus elitist, that’s far from the outcome.

MLC doesn’t look for the highest grades, Scotto says, but rather for students who will thrive in the school’s unusual environment. That means students of varying abilities and backgrounds who can handle the freedom and responsibility, and who are comfortable working independently, interested in the academic program and willing to treat others with courtesy and respect.

While MLC has few students of color, that masks the actual great diversity among the students. Almost a third of students come from lower-income homes, and MLC has also been a refuge for gay students. Unusual for PPS high schools, MLC has high and balanced percentages both of students eligible for special education services (21.5 percent) and those identified as TAG, or talented and gifted (17.9 percent) — and both groups are fully integrated into all the classes.

Students who might get picked on in many schools are welcomed at MLC. “It’s a safe environment,” Scotto says. “Everyone’s accepted.”

MLC keeps its high school enrollment at about 140. It has only five classroom teachers and a special education teacher dedicated to those students. That means every high school student takes math from one teacher, science from another and French or Spanish from a third.

To give the students a full range of academics and experiences, the school staff gets creative. Students must complete community service, and many earn credits for independent projects. Many teach an elective class or two, on top of their core assignments, and many are certified to teach in multiple subjects.

Alex, the senior, remembers his architecture class, taught by an English teacher, where students drew “floor plans for ridiculous houses that would never be built.” MLC recently offered a cooking class taught in Spanish: Arte de Culinario.

Some things MLC can’t offer because of its small size: To compete athletically, students must join their neighborhood school’s sports teams, and extracurricular activities are limited.

Teachers get to know their students inside and out — their talents, strengths, motivations and good and bad habits. Counselors also meet weekly with mixed grades of high school students in a guidance period.

If a student isn’t on track to graduate, parents and teachers know it and can try to find solutions in their regular meetings. “You can see it coming,” Scotto says of students who don’t earn a diploma. “There was one girl last year, and we were working with her since junior year.” 

National research and local focus groups of dropouts agree: The key to increasing graduate rates is making engaging students and creating connections among students, their families and teachers. That seems to be the critical ingredient at MLC.

“You’re not going to fall through the cracks,” Scotto says. He notes that most high school reformers preach the virtues of personalization.

“Here,” he says, “you have one of the best chances of pulling it off.”

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“I would need smaller classes so teachers can pay attention to each student.” High school boy
7. Go deep on high school ideas
High school student

Want to join a deeper discussion about our high schools, student achievement research and issues such as equity? Interested in working in smaller groups to draft a high school system – perhaps based on one of the Big Ideas – that you believe would bring better results for all students?

Please join us:
Saturday, May 16, 8:30 a.m. to noon
Jefferson High School, 5210 N. Kerby Ave. (map)

If you already participated in one of the earlier Big Idea meetings, great. If not, catch up by going online to review the ideas and offer your feedback. Either way, we hope you can join us.

Child care (for children ages 4 and up) will be provided, and interpreters will be available for those who speak Russian, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. If you have requests for any other special needs or accommodations, please contact PPS Communications at 503-916-3304.

“I don’t think you find out what you want to do later in life unless you have choices.” Middle school girl
8. What do students think of PPS high schools?

To improve the high school system, it’s important to go beyond parent views and past practices. The best way to do that is to hear from our youngest experts: current and future high school students.

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Here’s what we did to make sure students have a say in building a better high school system:

  • More than 2,350 students — from all high schools — took part in an online survey.
  • Researchers also conducted focus groups with eighth-graders and high school students, and dropouts of both genders.
  • PPS staff met with leadership classes at every high school campus to discuss the essential elements of a new system.

According to the survey, students generally feel good about their high school experience but believe that their school will need some changes over time. They also see the lack of money and predictable or stable funding as the biggest obstacles to their high schools being more successful.

Those views were similar to earlier sentiments from PPS employees and the general public. The students didn’t always agree with the adults: They were not overly concerned about the equity of course and program options among schools, and placed a much lower priority on closing the achievement gap between different socioeconomic and ethnic groups.

The focus group discussions yielded one overwhelming theme: Students want teachers who care.

They wanted to know that they could get personal attention when they needed it, and that their teachers would notice and ask when they miss assignments. Students wanted to feel, one student said, that their teachers weren’t “only in it because of the money.”

Read summariesPDF icon and more results from the student research and focus groupsPDF icon.

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PPS Extra Credit is a publication of the Portland Public Schools Communications Office.

Robb Cowie, director; Sarah Carlin Ames, editor; Erin Barnett, writer; Richard Martin, designer. Questions, comments or story ideas: pubinfo@pps.k12.or.us or 503-916-3304.

Portland Public Schools is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

Portland Public Schools - 501 North Dixon Street - Portland, Oregon 97227 - 503-916-2000 - www.pps.k12.or.us