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New foundation chief proposes changes to ‘equity fund’
by: SARAH TOOR, One of the first challenges tackled by Connie Van Brunt, new executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation, involves the foundation’s equity grant program, which critics say has fostered school inequity in the past.

The rallying cry in Portland Public Schools nowadays — as school board members, parents and teachers well know — is equity. That makes the Portland Schools Foundation’s “equity fund” — the pot of money offered to schools through two grant programs — an area of much scrutiny. There’s a lot of money at stake. About a dozen schools each year receive awards of up to $40,000 in “new vision” grants, aimed at training and instruction to reduce the achievement gap. Last year a total of $452,000 was doled out. Another $330,000 was awarded to a dozen or so additional schools to boost parent, family and community involvement efforts. The extra cash, principals say, is invaluable. But some school activists have been charging lately that the equity fund hasn’t been serving its purpose well. They say the neediest schools don’t have the time, means and know-how to seek and obtain the competitive grants. Some parents have even given up on the foundation as a source of help altogether. Now the foundation is trying to address the concerns, having conducted its first review of the grant program for the first time in 10 years. Connie Van Brunt, the foundation’s new executive director, will present a set of proposed changes to the Portland school board at its Monday night meeting. If approved, they’ll take effect next month when the next round of grants begins. The changes include assigning more help to schools seeking and writing grants; a detailed “rubric” of grant criteria that will provide more transparency and accountability in the process; and more communication about what grants are available. Caroline Lehmkuhl, co-president of the Llewellyn School Foundation, said more awareness of the foundation’s work will be a welcome change. Her foundation hopes to raise about $30,000 this year, which it will use to keep class sizes down. “As a school that pays a portion into the equity fund, I want it to be as well-publicized, available and useful as it can be,” she said. “Both the general public and families of Portland Public Schools want to know more about this entity and what it can do.” In all, there are 32 schools in the district that contribute to the equity fund through their fundraising efforts. Lincoln High School is at the top, raising more than $340,000 last year. Another proposed change to the equity fund would allow the wealthier schools to keep a bigger portion of their earnings before a third of the remainder is donated to the fund. Currently, schools are exempt from sharing their first $5,000; that would be raised to $10,000. “The parents, while they’re more than willing and understanding of the need to contribute, I think that’s something they’re going to like,” said Terri Geist, principal at Alameda Elementary, another fundraising powerhouse. “We realize we’re very lucky. We have things, the teachers have things that some of their colleagues in less privileged parts of the city don’t have. … It’s a tough question,” Geist said. Lynne Schlom-Ferguson, principal at Arleta School in Southeast, said she’s never had a big problem with the equity grant process despite being a high-poverty school. She said she’s received four of the five grants she has applied for from the foundation, which allowed her to run parent education courses, reform the school’s reading instruction and pay teachers to do home visits. “It’s really revamped our school,” she said, noting that test scores now are approaching the 90th percentile. School activists, however, tell a different story. “The bottom line is the kids who really need it don’t get it,” said one North Portland parent who asked not to be named. “This makes the gap bigger, in my opinion. There’s a better system, for sure, than having to write a grant for it.” Steve Rawley, a North Portland parent who’s emerged as the leading voice for equity issues in the district through his blog,, agrees that parents shouldn’t be asked to “jump through hoops” by applying for competitive grants. “(The foundation) should identify the schools that need it and give it to them,” he said, as long as there are certain qualifications and measures of accountability in place. Principals decide their needs Rawley and a growing chorus of parents are increasingly concerned that the school district doesn’t provide equitable programs at every school. He wonders why the foundation can’t simply fill those gaps more directly. For example, if one wealthier school is able to secure its own music teacher through fundraising, the foundation should fund a music teacher in a school that needs it, he says. The inequities are the reasons families transfer out, he said, which leaves poor schools poorer and rich schools richer. Van Brunt noted that one of the foundation’s resources — the First Octave Fund — is specifically dedicated to providing more arts and music at the schools. Sarah Carlin Ames, a district spokeswoman, said the issue of equity between schools is something the school board has been trying to tackle. It comes down to the way principals make their own staffing decisions — most make trade-offs between keeping class sizes down and being able to fund art, music, physical education and librarians. “The district and past superintendents haven’t felt comfortable saying you must provide music to every kid,” she said. “They haven’t felt that we had the budget flexibility to tell principals what to do with their staff. … It’s tough to say to people, when they just passed the local option, that there’s still some trade-offs in the budget” because of health care costs, utility bills and other expenses the district faces. Transfers, hiring come up As a newcomer to the discussions, Van Brunt hears the urgency in parents’ voices and says it’s very different from what she experienced in Chicago. “Here, people fight hard for things,” she said. “Education is something of a blood sport.” As for the politics of it all, Van Brunt said she can’t speak on behalf of the foundation’s board but personally thinks the student transfer system — along with the controversial teacher hiring and transfer process — should be addressed. “They’re two areas where the outcomes aren’t necessarily in line with the intent,” she said. “Anything that diminishes equity of opportunity needs realigning … Portland has the potential to be a shining example of urban education.” The foundation board isn’t taking a stand — yet — on either of the political hot potatoes. The student transfer policy is being reviewed by the school board, and the teacher hiring process will be up for negotiation between district leaders and the teachers union in coming months. Bill Kelly, chief executive officer of and a member of the foundation board, said it’s unclear whether the board will take up either issue as priorities. Personally, he said, he’d like to stay away from politics and focus on innovative programs that increase opportunities for students. Van Brunt has plenty of those ideas, too. Engineering idea introduced Among the new programs Van Brunt wants to bring is a national career-themed program for lower-performing high school students called “science, technology, engineering and math” schools, which Van Brunt had success with in Chicago. “I’d love to get 10 in Oregon,” she said, noting that she’s already in talks with Jefferson High School Principal Cynthia Harris about potentially locating a new Academy of Engineering at the school’s Young Men’s Academy. The academy would prepare students who “aren’t the usual suspects” for technology-based careers, she said, potentially opening as soon as 2009 if the community is on board and everything comes together. While she bubbles with enthusiasm in describing the program, she is careful not to sound like it’s a done deal. Another big difference between Portland and Chicago that she’s found: “Here, people like to process with you. You better not get out there with a solution of your own.” More testing may be in order Van Brunt also is looking to introduce a pilot program at several Portland schools that would measure students’ progress in different subjects three times per year, sets personal goals for each child, and addresses their academic weaknesses through their strengths. School districts nationwide subscribe to the model with the statistical help of the Lake Oswego-based Northwest Education Association. When she was head of the Chicago charter school network from 2005 to earlier this year, she said, the association’s model produced huge results among kids who were mostly poor and spoke English as a second language. They saw an average 20 percent gain in test scores in reading and math, while some jumped as much as 50 percentage points within the two years. Ironically, when Van Brunt realized the association was based in Oregon, she was further encouraged to apply for the schools foundation job, assuming that Portland schools used the association’s model as well. She was mistaken, however. Portland schools haven’t sought out the program, which cost $65,000 per year for 2,800 students in Chicago. Van Brunt hopes to seek a business or community sponsor in Portland to begin the pilot program here. “I wish my ideas were connected to a big bucket of bucks,” she said. “We’re urban. We’re multicultural. If it works anywhere, it’ll work here.” While many in Portland cringe at the thought of more student testing, saying it isn’t a true indicator of progress, Van Brunt and others subscribe to it. “With the whole No Child Left Behind world we live in, the glass half-empty way to see it is we shouldn’t just focus on testing, the collection of data, all that,” said Kelly, of the foundation board. “The glass half-full is if you do measurements right, you give teachers a tool kit they can use to personalize the teaching and learning that’s happening in the classrooms.” Van Brunt, who went back to school 10 years ago to pursue her doctorate in quantitative and developmental methods in education, is a big believer in statistics. She’s used them for most of her career in working with disadvantaged youth. “To have equity, it’s got to be measurable, not the warm fuzzy stuff,” she said. “If we see a persistent achievement gap or dropout rate, there’s a mathematical basis for that. … Growth has got to be more than chance alone.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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