Neighbors rally for Woodlawn, Vernon schools
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
A crowd of some 200 residents gathered for a protest and meeting at Jefferson High School Saturday to give feedback to a plan to close and merge several elementary schools in order to boost instructional offerings in remaining schools that feed into Jefferson .
Opposition was loud against the proposals that could see Vernon or Woodlawn elementary schools shuttered, as well as the possible reconfiguration of Ockley Green into a middle school after a one-year closure and possible merger of King and Chief Joseph schools.
Last year, the Portland School District closed Humboldt and Tubman in the Jefferson cluster.
“We think that’s the wrong approach to fixing our school system,” said Mary Van Zandt and Mike Horner, who live in the neighborhood, but do not have kids that attend the schools slated for closure.
Both were part of a crowd of frustrated, but non-violent protesters rallying outside before the meeting. Words like minority, institutional racism, segregation, unequal system and gentrification opened the conversation to deeper lying issues the north and northeast Portland community has expressed for decades.
“Stop racist school closures,” signs read. “We want equity,” read others. “Don’t close our schools.”
Adam Sanchez, a former Jefferson High School and current Madison High school teacher who is an activist for social justice in education, also spoke, “If you’re a poor, student of color you get singled-out, targeted, punished and your school gets closed,” he said.
Sanchez listed aloud the high percentages of minority populations at Vernon, Woodlawn and Ockley Green, all among options for closure. “Portland Public Schools has closed more schools in the Jefferson Cluster than all other school districts combined,” he said, “We are here to ask why?”
Lauren Andronici, mother of an interracial family, said she moved to northeast Portland so that her children could go to a school close to home.
Now, a resident of four years, she watches middle-class neighbors move in and instead of sending their kids to local, neighborhood schools, they send them off to more affluent schools, while her kids’ schools are left behind with low enrollment and fewer resources. “The money follows the students,” she said.
Andronici said closing schools is destabilizing to those who need the most stability—the long-term, marginalized community of the Jefferson cluster.
“I want the school board to slow this process down and come up with a well-thought out, strategic long-term plan for this cluster,” she said.
Representing more than 4,000 teachers in the Portland area, President of Portland’s Association of Teachers Gwen Sullivan said it’s not about which schools to close, but how are we going to work together to make sure our kids have resources in those schools.
“Every single neighborhood deserves a very strong quality neighborhood school,” said Sullivan.
Protesters filing inside Jefferson after the rally were served hot coffee and tea before the Portland Public School board sat everyone down for a “listening session.”
Superintendent Carole Smith announced that she was appreciative for the passion demonstrated by parents and teachers who really cared about their kids and schools.
On the tables before them were district provided information and statistics entitled “Enrollment balancing,” and feedback forms for “Jefferson PK-8 Schools: Options for finding the balance.”
The school district outlined two proposal options. The first, promoting stronger, larger K-8 schools, would close Woodlawn school and consolidate those students into a dual K-8 campus with lower grades at Chief Joseph and upper grades at Ockley Green. The second, promoting a middle school K-8 blend, would create a junior middle college (6-8) at Ockley Green, moving Chief Joseph 5th graders to Woodlawn, and likely closing Vernon or splitting the campus with King.
Transfer and boundary changes were also sketched out in the proposal draft.
“What I am hoping is that you can provide information for what I go forward with,” said Smith.
Frustration and tension bubbled in the room and one grandparent stood to protest, “This meeting is designed to make people feel like they have input, but how can I know that our input is really valuable?” A majority of the crowd nodded and clapped with approval.
A discussion followed of how ideas should be coming from the community to inform the school board on how to address school issues, not from the top down.
One parent of a child at Vernon said the Jefferson cluster and community has been battling school closures since 1980, and the school district continues to use fancy words like “enrollment balancing” for closing schools.
One young black woman helped put the situation in perspective for minorities. She said due to past racism and segregation, “Blacks were forced into north and northeast Portland. Out of survival we created a community.” Now, she said, “Classicism and racism are breaking up that community.”
Many argued that the district’s transfer policy, which allows families to transfer out of their neighborhood schools to other, often more affluent and financially-supported schools, leaving those left behind under-enrolled and lacking resources, breeds segregation and should be ended.