The pros and cons of K-8 schools
I didn't really have time to fit in a lunchtime meeting on Wednesday. The lack of posts here and elsewhere is because Tuesday night, my Neighborhood Association Board held a Special Meeting to review the Portland Bureau of Development Services' Staff Report on a 12 lot subdivision application. I recently stepped down as the land use chair after fifteen years, but both the new land use volunteer and the Neighborhood Association President live too close to the proposed development to be able to sort through the various conflicting values without being accused of personal bias. I've long committed to serving on this particular application... which has been in the pipeline for several years. I've spent most of the past two days engrossed in the five-inches-thick tome known as Title 33, happily tapping out the response agreed by consensus at our meeting. Happy because I love land use cases, where the rules are clear and it's a matter of detailing whether the application meets them or not. And because the level of agreement we reached at our meeting on Tuesday was unexpected, given that we were talking about change, development, and not getting everything everyone wanted. I'm submitting our memorandum this morning.
I took time out Wednesday lunchtime to attend the League of Women Voters of Portland's monthly meeting, at the Central Library. It was a panel discussion on the virtues and flaws of middle schools and/or schools teaching kindergarten through 8th grade. The speakers were Dennis Hartinger, eighth grade teacher at Roseway Heights School; Kimberley Campbell, Assistant Professor of Education, Lewis & Clark College in the Masters of Teaching program (where my son Luke hopes to be accepted - sadly, I didn't get a chance to put in a word for him after the meeting); Joan Miller, former principal and current Portland Public Schools (PPS) administrator as Coordinator of PK-8 Reconfiguration; and David Wynde, PPS School Board member. Each spoke for 15 minutes then took questions. Dennis firmly believes middle schools are better for more kids and teachers. Kim said the research evidence is mixed. Joan advocated for the k-8 approach, and David provided a reality check by reminding the audience the decisions to blend and close schools are at least in part due to budget constraints. It was an interesting session. Probably everyone in attendance (and it was a good turnout) had some preconceived beliefs validated. Middle schools allow more choices in electives, provide counselors, and draw teachers who truly want to specialize in early teenage education. K-8 reduces isolation of adolescents through ongoing relationships with staff they've known for years, as well as by contact with younger kids. The K-8 configuration can also help support keeping neighborhood elementary schools open, and allowing students to stay closer to home for middle school.
The comments of district administrators sounded to me like the spiels Steve and I heard as parents of grade school children in the early 1990s -- perhaps the darkest days of budget/staff cutting in the aftermath of Measure 5 passing. Then, administrators spent most of the time at parent meetings trying to convince families that "blended classrooms" are good for kids. Blended classrooms are where two or more grade levels are taught together. We experienced one or more of our children being the lower and upper halves of 1st-2nd grade blends, and 3rd-4th, and 4th-5th. While the blends may have helped them socially, in some ways, I don't believe the assurances we were told that they would not affect academic progress held true. And frankly, I would have preferred being treated as an adult, and rather than being told the blends were chosen for academic success, the administration should have said clearly, "We have to do this for budget reasons."
This year is the first year in 17 years of being a Portland Public Schools parent that I haven't had to worry about cuts as we started school in September. We're not out of the woods yet, by any means. The article in Wednesday's Willamette Week about underfunding and underfstaffing the Young Mens Academy at Jefferson is but the latest reminder of that. As David Wynde said, money isn't the only factor making good schools, but it is one factor. One of the primary reasons for moving to k-8 configurations is budgetary, and I think it would be helpful if we all agree on that, and change the focus to how to make it work best. Endless discussion of whether 8th graders are good influences on kindergarteners and vice versa, or not, wastes precious time and energy if the decision on grade configurations is really already determined by economics.