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The school struggle in Northwest


Overcrowding at Chapman leads to proposal to oust MLC

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Metropolitan Learning Center Building on Northwest Glisan Street. The Metropolitan Learning Center community is angry and scared over a proposal from Chapman School’s Parent Teacher Association. It's part of an effort to find a solution to the Northwest Portland elementary school's overcrowding problem.

About 75 parents, students and staff at MLC met Wednesday evening for an organizing session on how to present their case to the District-wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee (DBRAC) that the unique K-12 program should remain in its building on Northwest Glisan Street.

DBRAC is a 26-person committee that is expected to bring a final proposal to alleviate overcrowded and under-enrolled schools to the school board in February. The district held a series of listening sessions in the fall over two district-wide boundary change scenarios that the committee is now altering in light of the public input.

When the Chapman community saw the scenarios, they were disappointed.

The Northwest Portland school built for 550 kids currently houses nearly 700. On the horizon: a construction boom in the Pearl District that could add hundreds of new children to the rosters.

“Clearly, a redistricting of 87 students at the edges of our catchment is a shortsighted solution for Chapman,” wrote PTA President Rosie Platt in a letter to the school board. The letter was part of a Change.org petition that got 249 signatures urging the district to consider options for a new elementary school in Northwest Portland.

The petition outlined four solutions for creating a new neighborhood school to relieve the pressure anticipated from the PTA’s calculation of 4,454 new apartment/condo units in 37 buildings in their catchment area. One of the solutions was to convert MLC into a neighborhood school but did not specify what would happen to the program.

Platt said the November petition was successful in getting more attention to the needs in Chapman.

“PPS is aware of our stance and have vocalized that they are revisiting the numbers with regards to Chapman,” Platt said in an email. “We feel like they did a great job listening to feedback from communities through the boundary review process and we are now awaiting the final proposal that should be released soon.”

Time is running out

What exactly the final proposed solution will be is unclear. With time running out for public process, MLC parents and staff say they feel blindsided by a lack of outreach for their input to a proposal that might affect them.

Neither of the original proposals changed MLC. DBRAC has just two more meetings — one on Saturday, Jan. 9 — before presenting its final proposal to the superintendent Jan. 20.

MLC Principal Pam Joyner sent a letter to the community on the last day before winter break, Dec. 18, notifying them of the possibility of MLC becoming a neighborhood school but said she didn’t have many details and hadn’t been directly contacted by the district nor the committee.

“I think that’s one of my biggest concerns, is I haven’t been contacted by anyone,” Joyner says. “That MLC is part of the conversation in revising those scenarios is a surprise.”

Jon Isaacs, a spokesman for the district, says this idea isn't coming from them.

"There haven’t been any changes proposed to MLC at this point, and there won’t be any changes proposed to MLC this Saturday by PPS staff," Isaacs wrote in an email. "That doesn’t preclude DBRAC from taking look at that as an (option) to consider when developing their final recommendations for the west side."

Program embedded in neighborhood

MLC, say Joyner and several teachers and parents, would be difficult to move from the building that has been its home for 48 years. With 430 students, the program is rumored to be the only public K-12 school on the west coast and its methods are unorthodox yet successful. The school relies heavily on hands-on learning and experiences outside of the classroom in the surrounding parks, businesses and streetscapes.

“It has very good logistical access for our experiential learning that we would lose in another site,” Joyner says.

Susan Beaird, an MLC teacher since 2002, agrees. She says the central, downtown location reinforces the school’s free-range kids philosophy.

“Part of the reason we’re successful is because we say: we trust you. We trust you to make good choices,” Beaird says. “For me that is crucial. That is absolutely a crucial component of an experiential school.”

John Walrod, also a teacher at MLC, says the school is not a magnet, alternative or charter school, but its own animal.

“MLC is a funny place because it seems to defy category and the district never seems to know what to do with us,” Walrod said. “But they really like our graduation rates and our test scores. So I think that’s why they tolerate us and have kept us around.”

Walrod says that although the school is “very, very white,” it has become a haven for kids with other minority traits.

“PPS is about racial diversity and that’s that,” he said. “I think many people don’t understand what a queer kid needs and transgender kids need and kids with disabilities need.”

And, he argues, “kids who would do well elsewhere get the privilege of growing up with a bunch of weird and quirky and fragile kids who have a lot to offer and are in a safe space where they are able to offer it.”

Not off the table

Scott Bailey, a member of the DBRAC, confirms the committee has discussed the proposal but declined to say how serious the planning has gotten.

“That’s one of many things that have come up in discussions,” he says. “It’s one thing to say it’s been discussed. It’s another to say DBRAC is heading that direction.”

Bailey says the committee’s Jan. 9 meeting will show more of where the idea is headed.

“It’s simply a matter of really looking at a map and seeing what are the options?” he says. “That’s one of those things that we prefer obviously not to have to move a program, but we’re keeping all options open.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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