Are high school changes working?

December 12, 2012: Two years after the Portland School Board approved major high school changes through High School System Design, I want to share with you a report that shows that Portland’s high schools are on track to meet the major goals and measures of these reforms.

  1. The 4-year graduation rate has increased 9 percentage points since 2008-09.
  2. The achievement (or educational opportunity) gap is narrowing.
  3. Our most under-enrolled schools are attracting more students.
  4. We are seeing gains in the percentage of students who are college ready.
  5. Portland high schools remain the schools of choice in our community. A consistent and even growing percentage of students who live in our school district are attending our high schools.
  6. Schools are on track in putting an equitable core program in place.
  7. Former Marshall students who are now at Franklin or Madison are doing better academically and have higher attendance rates than they did when they were at Marshall.

You can read the full report here.

In 2010, the school board and I made High School System Design’s difficult choices (overhauling high school programs, closing a high school campus and redrawing boundaries) for one reason: our high school system was failing to serve too many students. Glaring inequities across our high school system were a major cause of an unacceptably low graduation rate and an intolerable achievement gap.

While I am encouraged by the progress we are making, our on-time graduation rate is still not nearly where it needs to be. We need to accelerate the gains we are seeing across the board for students in our high school system.

As a result, I am convening a new High School Action Team, to be led by our Chief Academic Officer, to deepen our adaptive, instructionally-based changes across PPS’ entire system of comprehensive, focus, alternative and charter high schools. The High School Action Team will include teachers, principals, community partners and parents.

Resilience and progress in our high schools

I also want to acknowledge that like every school district in Oregon, PPS has sustained 4 years of service reductions due to reduced state funding and local revenue.

As a result, I know that despite the system-level gains we are seeing, there are personal frustrations in our high schools: students who want more courses, teachers who have higher student loads and principals who are trying to meet the needs of all students, at a time when there are fewer and fewer resources to do so.

That our high schools improved our graduation rate, narrowed the achievement gap and attracted a growing share of Portland’s families, even during challenging times, is a credit to the work of our principals, educators, partners and families, and the support of Portland for its schools.

A brighter future

Despite these challenges, the future is bright for our high schools. We are on pace to accomplish High School System Design’s major goals. Over the next 8 years Portland’s high schools are projected to grow by 1,000 students. And, earlier this month, Portland voters approved a school construction bond with over 66 percent approval, which prioritized upgrading high schools.

Join the discussion

The Portland School Board will discuss High School System Design implementation at its next work session (which begins at 6:00 p.m.) on December 17 at the school district’s main office at 501 N. Dixon Street. You can watch the meeting at or on Comcast Channel 28.

A live-stream discussion about PPS high schools (including an ECONorthwest researcher and high school staff) will be held from noon-1:00 p.m. on Wednesday December 19. The discussion can be viewed at or on Comcast Channel 28. Questions can be submitted in advance or during the live-stream discussion to:

Portland’s future as a thriving, creative, globally competitive and civically-engaged community with a high quality of life depends on the success of all of our high schools in educating every student well. Thank you to all the educators, family members, volunteers, community partners and city and county agencies whose commitment and hard work are helping to achieve better results for Portland’s students.

Carole Smith