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Group says PPS fumbles Roosevelt HS modernization

A group of North Portland community members is calling foul on Portland Public Schools' modernization design process for Roosevelt High School.

They say it has been less than transparent, misguided and not reflective of the community.

"This is a 75- to 100-year project that requires big thinking, big actions, and big results," the critics wrote in a letter emailed to district officials March 3. "This is not currently happening at Roosevelt so we need to get the process back on track so the Roosevelt community is not stuck with a mediocre school doomed to fail the North Portland population."

Taxpayers will be watching the Roosevelt project closely since it is the first full rebuild set to get off the ground with PPS' $482 million construction bond, approved by voters in November 2012.

Roosevelt's design process began last June with a district-appointed Design Advisory Group of teachers, PPS administrators and community members.

The school board approved a master plan for Roosevelt in December, but the critics charge it is flawed in outcome and process. Specifically, they say:

• PPS has discouraged dialogue by insisting that communications with the project architect, Bassetti, must first pass through the PPS project manager. They charge that PPS "overscripts" DAG meetings and workshops with "rigidly adhered to agendas and power-point presentations that allow little time for open discussion, debate or resolution of issues." As a result, they say, the public is relegated to a "relatively passive role with little influence on substantive matters."

• That PPS ignored suggestions from the DAG and community members, including the proposal to organize a subgroup of Career Technical Education experts to estimate the space requirements. "The current design fails in many ways according to local experience and expertise in this area," the critics' letter reads. "We have the opportunity to build off of the hard earned knowledge of similar efforts and appear to be reinventing the wheel instead."

• The 6,000 square feet proposed as CTE space at Roosevelt is not nearly enough, considering the minimum standard for schools nationally and in Oregon is about 10,000 square feet, and Franklin High School has 20,000 square feet of CTE space proposed in its rebuild. There aren't any complaints with that process so far.

The proposal is to split Roosevelt's 6,000 square feet into four sections: 2,000 square feet for a STEM lab; 2,000 square feet to teach electrical, metal and wood working; 1,000 square feet for a small-business lab and 1,000 square feet for a publishing lab.

Through research and tours of local CTE school facilities in Hillsboro, Sandy, Sherwood and Gladstone, the critics believe the wood and metal-working shop is undersized and poorly located apart from the STEM lab.

"In a successful MakerSpace these rooms are located in close proximity so students can collaborate more fully in designing, developing, and making things," the critics write. "Separating these spaces puts them both back in their boxes at a time when integrated learning has been chosen as the new paradigm."

Icing on the cake

Roosevelt High School Principal Charlene Williams told the Tribune on Friday that the CTE space for Roosevelt shouldn't be compared to Franklin's. Roosevelt is being built for 1,350 students; Franklin for 1,700. "Proportionately, because we have fewer students, we can't build the exact same size as Franklin," she says. "We won't have the same demand."

She also said Franklin is including law and mock trial, as well as science labs in their CTE space. Roosevelt would have both programs but they aren't included in the CTE space, she says.

Williams said she's just getting clarity on some of these issues, and will sit down with the critics' group next week to talk out some of the issues.

She and Vice Principal Greg Neuman played down criticism of the design process.

"There's a lot of folks that want a lot of things," Neuman said. "I wish we could have all of that too. At the end of the day, there's X amount of budget and X amount of footprint. ... It's a zero-sum game."

In addition to DAG meetings, Williams points out that there have been community design workshops and other ways for the public to get involved.

"I understand people want to know how their input is going to be valued and used," she says. "We are a district are being transparent with the process. There will still be misunderstandings. ... The more specific you start getting, you have to make adjustments, and there are tradeoffs."

Both Williams and Neuman say they've been working hard to improve achievement at Roosevelt while dealing with a smaller enrollment and capture rate. They say they've been wrestling with how to run with a larger school with an equitable offering of programs, including CTE, athletics and other departments.

"You almost have equal pressure from all sides, in terms of what's most important for our students," Williams says. "I believe we came up with a reasonable compromise as we move forward."

"It's icing on the cake to have a new building," she adds. "We want people to be excited about it."

Way it should be

The letter is signed by five North Portland neighborhood leaders including Mike Verbout, a retired PPS teacher and principal. He is a member of Roosevelt's Design Advisory Group, along with Herman Greene, pastor of Southlake North Church in St. Johns, which has a longstanding relationship with Roosevelt.

The three other co-signers are North Portland parent activist Paul Anthony; Dennis Phillips, a retired mechanical engineer and longtime advocate for career-technical education; and Joe Purkey, a PPS parent and co-owner of Convergence, a St. Johns architecture firm.

Superintendent Carole Smith, school board members and leaders at the district's Office of Modernization had not responded to the letter by Friday afternoon. Requests for comment were directed to Williams.

In any case, construction at Roosevelt is set to begin next March and completed by fall 2017.

Roosevelt received the bond's largest chunk of funds, at $82 million, but the construction budget is just $56.5 million. It's not clear where the $25.5 million are being spent.

To the layman, the Roosevelt Master Plan, posted on the district's website, appears uncontroversial.

Besides the CTE space, it includes bigger classrooms, wired for technology, with extended spaces for group and individual learning; a student “commons” for gathering and dining; a new library and media center; expanded gym space; seismic reinforcements on the historic original building facade and tower; and social services such as a health clinic, clothes closet, food pantry and counseling center with a separate entrance for community and after-hours use. The critics say they've waited until now to make their concerns publicly known because they wanted to give the district the benefit of the doubt.

“I think the process and resulting design has to be approached with fresh, new eyes," says Verbout. "My credibility and integrity mean a lot to me. When we go out to people and say this is what you voted for, that’s the way it should be.”