PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Parents of Portland Public School students say they’re concerned about some of the changes the district is considering, as it works to fill Southeast Portland middle schools and balance elementary school enrollment. 

In early 2020, PPS launched its efforts to balance schools in Southeast Portland and formed the Southeast Guiding Coalition, which reviews proposals, considers community input, and makes recommendations for new boundaries, school feeder patterns and special program locations. 

The coalition is made up of representatives from all 21 schools that could be impacted by the boundary changes. 

The coalition and school district are planning to make a final decision on what boundary proposal they’ll adopt in February 2022 and as that date draws closer, Megan Mackin is growing more worried about how her sons will be impacted. 

“It’s really important to us, after all the trauma that they’ve been through, that they stick with their people in their community,” she said. 

Other parents have also expressed their concerns about fragmenting school communities during Southeast Guiding Coalition meetings.

Mackin’s twin sons are in first grade at Lewis Elementary School in Southeast Portland. If either of the two current proposals are adopted, the Mackins’ address would fall in the Whitman Elementary School boundary instead of the Lewis Elementary School boundary. 

After bouncing from virtual kindergarten to in-person first grade at Lewis, Mackin said changing to Whitman in fall 2022 would be another trauma and disruption in her sons’ education. 

She’s also upset the district is considering doing away with its longstanding legacy rule, which allows enrolled students to stay through the highest grade in their school, even if the boundaries change. 

“If they vote on the legacy policy and vote to remove it, then you know that leaves people very little time to prepare or move or you know, try to find some other options,” Mackin said. 

Portland Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Claire Hertz said no decision has been made about the legacy policy on balancing enrollment. She said typically staff only recommend making an exception to the legacy policy when overcrowding in a specific building is urgent and requires immediate attention. 

Portland Public Schools wants the enrollment balancing process to also address some inequities in its education system.  

The district was concerned about its co-located language immersion schools; those are schools that share a building with a neighborhood school. One example is Woodstock Elementary, which has a Mandarin language immersion school and serves as a neighborhood school. The district said it received feedback from families and staff who said co-locating schools can divide resources and impact a school’s ability to fully support bilingual students. 

Kellogg Middle School Portland Public Schools
Portland Public Schools opened the new Kellogg Middle School in Southeast Portland in fall 2021. The district is rebalancing schools’ enrollment in Southeast Portland to fill Kellogg and other middle schools. (KOIN)

It is also concerned that Portland neighborhoods with the lowest incomes have some of the lowest student enrollment levels. 

PPS wants to have more than 500 students enrolled in each of its middle schools and more than 270 students enrolled in each of its elementary schools. 

The district wants to change Harrison Park School from a K-8 school to a middle school. Right now, it says Harrison Park School, Bridger Middle School and Lane Middle School all have fewer than 500 students. The district is also working to fill the newly opened Kellogg Middle School. 

Whitman Elementary School, the school that Mackin’s sons could be moved to, has fewer than 270 kids and the school the boys currently attend, Lewis, has classroom use above 80%.

Portland Public Schools Southeast Enrollment Balancing 2022-2023
Southeast Enrollment Balancing 2022-2023 – courtesy Portland Public Schools

At a school board meeting Tuesday, a representative from the Southeast Guiding Coalition said that principals, faculty and students feel that a school that is 100% utilized feels crowded. They prefer to keep the use to 80% or lower. 

What upsets Mackin is that other Southeast Portland schools, like Llewellyn Elementary in the Sellwood Neighborhood and Duniway Elementary in the Eastmoreland Neighborhood, aren’t being asked to adjust their enrollment, even though both schools also pass that 80% classroom use threshold. 

“I think PPS likes to look at the schools that raise the least amount of protest. So, I think that they are not going to address those schools that will have very vocal vocal parents,” Mackin said while talking about why PPS isn’t asking Llewellyn and Duniway to make changes. 

KOIN 6 News asked PPS why these schools weren’t required to make changes. Hertz said that while both schools are above the minimum enrollment of 270 people, they are not geographically close enough to be feeder schools to Harrison Park or Lane Middle School. 

She said enrollment can’t just be redistributed from some middle schools to others because the district needs to consider both current and projected future enrollment. 

“Shifting students now doesn’t maintain balanced enrollment for the long-term. There are programs and neighborhood schools that need to be balanced across the region,” Hertz said. 

At the school board meeting Tuesday, Hertz and her committee asked directors whether dual language immersion schools should be co-located with community schools or if they should be whole schools on their own. They also asked if creative science schools should remain K-8 or change to K-5. 

Most directors were split on the two questions. 

Hertz and other representatives from the Southeast Guiding Coalition also asked the school board if they thought the boundary changes should not be implemented until fall 2023 to allow more time to adjust staffing. The current implementation date is scheduled for fall 2022. 

The directors did not formally vote on the change, but most said they supported the delay due to concerns about staffing. 

“I know change is hard for people but I know you can survive going to different schools and I again, really, really in favor of the option that serves our Black and brown kids,” Board Chair Michelle DePass said at the meeting. 

Mackin said a school change for her boys wouldn’t just be hard, it would be devastating. She said if the boundary change is enacted, she will seriously consider moving to a new home that’s in the new Lewis Elementary boundary to allow her kids to still attend the school. 

The Southeast Guiding Coalition is currently in Phase Two of its work on the boundaries and has two proposals it’s considering: Proposal A and Proposal B. It is also working on a Proposal C. The next SEGC virtual meeting is Thursday at 6 p.m. For details, click here.