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My View: Discord sign of real change at schools

“We have been fighting dragons for so long, we have forgotten how to build castles.”

State Rep. Lew Frederick’s words came to mind while I sat in public meetings to review designs to modernize Franklin and Roosevelt High Schools, two $80 million-plus projects that are among the biggest public investments Portland will see during this decade. Though he was speaking about the state Legislature, Frederick’s words seemed to capture the mood at the school sessions.

The recent meetings in the Mount Tabor and St. Johns neighborhoods, attended by dozens of community members, parents, teachers and students, allowed the architects for the Franklin and Roosevelt projects to present their latest designs. While opinions vary on many of the design ideas, two issues have burst into controversy: plans for new career and technical education space, and the proposal to have teachers share general education classrooms.

Technical education advocates say the CTE proposals do not go far enough, falling short on both vision and space. Teachers say the shared classroom concept goes too far, and is a change they cannot accept.

Some see the controversies as signs of a broken process. I disagree. The discord tells me that the current designs propose real changes, not just the status quo with better Sheetrock and fresh paint. Change is what two-thirds of Portland voters said they wanted by voting for the $482 million bond for school modernization back in 2012.

New forms of hands-on learning must be available to all students, say the CTE advocates, and new spaces, equipment and curricula are needed to support them. Ideas under consideration run a gamut from new metal and wood shops supported by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classrooms to enhanced career electives in social services, journalism and biomedicine. A wild card in the discussion is the “makerspace” model, a multipurpose fabrication space inspired by the DIY culture in Portland and around the country.

CTE proponents don’t necessarily agree about the labels, but when it comes to space all agree, “More is better.” In a building as complex as a modern high school, that means trade-offs.

Limited sites and limited budgets are the reality. Larger CTE spaces come at the expense of other educational priorities. Which ones? It’s going to take clever haggling and thoughtful compromise to decide.

Teachers at Franklin and Roosevelt have voiced strong opposition to the “shared classroom” concept for general education classrooms. The approach is intended to support collaboration between teachers, foster small-group learning by students, and use classroom spaces more efficiently.

The teachers raise valid concerns about the risks of departing from the century-old “owned classroom” model, and the danger of gambling with student achievement gains. But PPS stakeholders, including teachers, have repeatedly expressed a preference for flexible spaces that support collaborative teaching since the bond was passed. There must be a middle ground.

Does vigorous disagreement mean that the design process has gone off track? Not at all. When desirable objectives like hands-on career learning or a new teaching paradigm show up in architectural drawings and proposed allocations of space, it’s natural for people to react. Faced with change, some resist.

Deeply felt reactions and forceful advocacy are healthy. Architects engage with such energies all the time, and the architects working on the Franklin and Roosevelt projects are among the country’s best school designers. Their final designs will be better for the debate.

The selection of Franklin and Roosevelt, two of Portland’s most iconic public high schools, as the district’s first modernization projects shows willingness to take a risk on big projects. There should be a corresponding return for our students.

School bonds are never a sure thing at Oregon’s ballot box. During 2013, 21 school districts asked their voters to pass bonds. Fourteen of those requests failed, leaving $558 million in school projects unfunded.

Working through conflicting priorities is an important part of learning how to “build castles.” With dozens of worn-out schools, and thousands of students who deserve facilities designed for the needs and opportunities of the 21st century, all of us have to get this process right to earn voter support for future rounds of investment.

Edward Wolf, a parent of two Grant High School graduates, is a citizen volunteer on the Portland district’s Long Range Facilities Plan advisory committee.