Students from Harvey Scott Elementary School get a demonstration of a bomb-detonating robot at Starbase, a Department of Defense-funded program that teaches kids about math, science, and engineering. Photo courtesy of Starbase.
Program offers hands-on math, science teaching
The Portland Public Schools Board of Education on Monday voted 4-2 in favor of renewing a contract for STARBASE, a 25-hour educational program funded out of the Department of Defense recruitment budget.
The STARBASE program sends fourth and fifth graders to a week-long science camp on a local military base. Portland Public Schools has participated in STARBASE since 1993.
This 2-year, $300,000-revenue contract between the school district and the DOD drew much attention district-wide, as it is usually a 1-year alliance, and comes before the board in spring, not fall. A growing number of Portland parents and community members strongly oppose the program because it is funded out of the U.S. military’s recruitment budget and takes place at a military facility.
The STARBASE program has repeatedly been a hot-button issue for the school board, drawing dozens of people wanting to comment on it, and hundreds protesting it whenever it comes up for renewal. Monday was no different.
Former and current teachers – both at the base and at PPS – praised the program’s ability to demonstrate to students a real-world application of math and science, taking it beyond classroom theory.
Andrew Jaquiss, a North Portland elementary school teacher, called STARBASE “the best field trip of my life.”
Jaquiss said that the program’s hands-on math and science education helps the budget-strapped district, and revealed that his students showed a 59 percent improvement from pre- to post-science trip scores.
Student recruitment an issue
Many community members spoke out against the program, saying it was a means to recruit impressionable and economically vulnerable youth into joining the military. Most of the schools participating in the program are Title 1 schools, with high percentages of minority students, and high poverty rates.
Anne Trudeau, a PPS parent, spoke in opposition to the program, pointing out that photos from the STARBASE site – showing students being instructed by teachers in uniform and students climbing on a tank – are means in which the military is targeting low-income or at-risk youth under the guise of education. Those photos, she said, are in contradiction to what board members claim happens on the base.
“It has happened. It is recruitment,” Trudeau told the board.
She also inquired about alternative curricula for parents who opt-out their child, and requested that equal school time be given to other career options, since STARBASE is defined as a “career program.”
Board member Dilafruz Williams also expressed concern over alternative education for opt-out students, and said more steps needed to be taken to ensure equal opportunities are available.
The board confirmed that parents were sent home documentation in both English and Spanish about STARBASE’s location on the Portland National Guard Air Base. Member Bobbie Regan also related her trip last school term to the base, saying it allies closely with PPS’s outdoor school program.
Student representative Dina Yazdani repeated past students’ testimony about their enjoyment of STARBASE, mentioning that they said they “had no idea” that the program took place on a base. She was encouraged by these statements, as she – and several board members – also spoke out about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. However, she was concerned that a former teacher at the base did say that he was interested in recruiting students.
Board members Williams and Ruth Atkins voted no, with student representative Yazdani unofficially voting yes, and member Martin Gonzalez not present.