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North Portland K-8 skirts closure with community love
by: SARAH TOOR, Sixth-grader Adenike Warren, 10, talks with her teacher during a math lesson at Humboldt Elementary School, where district spending is the highest in Portland — and need is greatest.

With one thick braid in her mane full of long, loose locks, 10-year-old Adenike Warren joined her classmates last Wednesday in the Humboldt Elementary School gym to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The 228 students then continued with their daily ritual by reciting the school pledge: “I believe I can achieve and achieve at anything I set out to do,” they said, as rows of parents and staff beamed nearby. “I know what I do today will influence what I become tomorrow. I will be a good listener. I will not hinder my own or classmates’ learning in any way.” They continued on for a minute, then went right into Juramento de Humboldt, the Humboldt pledge in Spanish. It was just as loud, and just as articulate. While the school used to be somewhat “chaotic” several years ago, Principal Jamila Williams admitted, the culture today is all about rituals, rules and order. “There’s a positiveness here,” she says. In more ways than one, the word seems to perfectly suit the cheery and determined North Portland school, which nearly was closed last year after former Superintendent Vicki Phillips declared it didn’t fit within her “right-sizing” of schools at 400 to 600 students. Neighborhood school activists, parents and community members fought to keep Humboldt open, and won. Now, as the poorest and smallest nonmagnet K-8 school in the district, Humboldt’s supporters are trying to gain a foothold in the competitive free-market system of school choice in Portland. As Williams put it: “As long as you have the haves and the have-nots, why would you want your child at a have-not school?” Now in her fourth year as principal of Humboldt, Williams has seen the effects of the district’s liberal enrollment and transfer policy, which allows students to transfer to any school as long as there is space. At her school, 40 percent of neighborhood students transfer out, taking their state funding with them. “I think there’s benefits to transfers,” she said, such as choosing a language immersion or magnet program, “but the policy does hurt the neighborhood schools.” She added: “If all neighborhood schools were equipped with the necessities to give all kids an equal education, not just in curriculum, you would draw the neighborhood back.” An auditor’s report last year also found major flaws with the transfer policy, including contributing to the “skimming” effect that happens when higher-achieving students are most likely to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer out of low-performing schools. A school board committee, which would make recommendations to the full board, may take up the issue in October. It’s uncertain whether the policy review will result in minor tweaks or a major overhaul. North Portland parent Steve Rawley hopes for the latter. The software engineer, who’s written extensively on the issue in his blog, morehockeylesswar.org, thinks the transfer policy should be rewritten to end neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, starting at the elementary school level. He also thinks the school boundaries should be re-examined, and magnet and language immersion schools should be relocated to poorer neighborhoods to give parents a reason to seek them out rather than flock to already popular schools. How is he so convinced? Rawley, a member of the watchdog group Neighborhood Schools Alliance, has compiled data from the district to create coded maps that starkly show what he calls a reverse Robin Hood effect in schools throughout the city. Poor schools get poorer, while rich schools get richer. Both public school parents and nonparents should be concerned about the issue, Rawley said, because the quality of schools is an important piece of real estate values. “We don’t have to do anything radical,” he said. “All we have to do is have everyone go to the school in their neighborhood.” Community counts for a lot While every neighborhood school has its struggles, Humboldt, at 4715 N. Gantenbein Ave., often has gotten the short end of the stick. Consider the numbers. The school has 240 students enrolled this year, 30 fewer than last year. Some were lost after closure of the nearby Iris Court housing complex, and others transferred elsewhere this year because they thought the school would close or fear it still may close. Still other students, mostly girls, took advantage of the opening of the new single-sex academies at Jefferson High School this year, which begin at sixth grade. Misty Warren, mother of 10-year-old Adenike, briefly considered sending her daughter there, but chose to stick with the stability of Humboldt, where she’s been since kindergarten and now is part of the talented and gifted program. “My husband and his sister went there,” she said. “It’s just real family oriented. We love it.” The tightknit community at Humboldt is one of its best selling points, Williams said, despite the school’s funding woes. The Portland school district spends $6,518 per pupil at Humboldt, more than any other K-8 school besides nearby Ockley Green, now an arts magnet school that spends $6,973 per pupil. The funding is based on need, and Humboldt’s students (65 percent of whom are black, 26 percent Hispanic) certainly are needy: 96 percent receive free and reduced lunches, more than any other school in the district including Jefferson, a few blocks away. But the per-pupil funding doesn’t translate to more staff and programs at the school because the money follows the student, and 40 percent of neighborhood students transfer to other schools in the district. Six percent of those choose to attend schools with focus options (magnets), while 5 percent enroll in charter schools. One other way Humboldt’s enrollment is haunting it: While Phillips promised that new K-8 schools would receive more enrichment programs, such as music, art and physical education, Humboldt was left out of the deal because its enrollment is too low. Only schools with 400 students or more get these perks. As a result, Williams has been left to supplement the curriculum with a P.E. program offered once a week by Nike Inc., a harp teacher brought in once a week, computer classes once a week and a session at the school library once a week — although there is no school librarian. The low numbers also have left Humboldt without a Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program, which — due to its own budgetary issues at Multnomah County — now is only offered to schools of 400 or more. Part of the SUN after-school offerings is the Touchstone Program, which provides resources for families such as food and clothing donations, job and rent assistance, money management and counseling referrals. In the highest poverty school in the district, “that was our main way to connect with families, and now it’s gone,” Williams said. “The community really supports Humboldt, but the district sees Humboldt as a small school. We’re pretty much on our own to get the resources and connections we need.” Partnerships save the day Part of those outside efforts include a new partnership with the nonprofit Adopt-a-Class, the organization that pairs local businesses with schools to provide them with things like books, field trips and mentorships between students and employees. Mentor Graphics, Humboldt’s sponsor, already has donated backpacks full of school supplies for every student; the official program starts next month. “The teachers and staff are just so committed to the kids,” said Janice Leonetti, who leads Portland’s Adopt-a-Class program with her husband, Wayne Abbott. “They just have the biggest hearts. They have the biggest poverty rate, but you go in the school you don’t even know it. You feel so good.” Humboldt also has found a friend in the nonprofit Hands on Portland, which will send 250 volunteers to the school Sept. 22 to give it an “extreme school makeover,” including creating a learning garden in an empty parking lot beside the school, rehabilitating the playground, cleaning up the landscape, and painting the interior. Still another effort by the Portland Development Commission will fund the planting of a new row of trees outside one edge of the building, to shade classrooms from the hot sun. Nicole Breedlove, a Neighborhood Schools Alliance member who is a new Humboldt parent, says community partnerships are what makes a neighborhood school what it is. Her 4 1/2-year-old son, James, started pre-kindergarten Monday but she’s already served on the school’s PTA for the past year. This year she’ll coordinate Humboldt’s Start Making a Reader Today program, helping students work on their reading skills. She loves the school not only because it’s close to her home, but for the diversity; her son will be one of a few white faces in the building. She also would like to see changes to the transfer policy, but wants to make sure there are quality schools in every neighborhood. Williams agrees. “There has not been a reason in the past for Humboldt to stand out,” she said. “We’re just a quiet little diamond in the rough.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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