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Schools assigned to competitive levels based on enrollment

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID PLECHL - Benson Tech could lose its sports program under a proposal by a Portland Public Schools official. The plan is expected to shock Benson Tech parents and alumni.A new proposal that will hit the Portland School Board soon for public comment would eliminate athletics at Benson Polytechnic High School.

The sure-to-be-controversial move is being spearheaded by PPS’ new athletic director, Marshall Haskins — a former coach and administrator at Jefferson, Wilson and, most recently, Franklin High.

The rough proposal comes as the Oregon School Activities Association is preparing to make a decision on which schools belong at which competitive levels. That is generally based on enrollment, and the OSAA takes the action every four years.

Grant and Lincoln play at the highest level, Class 6A, which also includes the largest and best-supported schools in the state, such as David Douglas, Westview, Lake Oswego and Jesuit.

PPS’ other Portland Interscholastic League schools play a notch lower, in Class 5A. The closure of the Marshall campus during the recent high school redesign shifted enrollment numbers at the schools. Those latest numbers will force Cleveland to move to the 6A level.

Those changes would further split up the Portland schools, possibly making it hard for Cleveland and other schools to compete. That may turn away some students from participating and the community from supporting their athletics.

Haskins presents four options. Three of them eliminate sports at Benson in different ways; the fourth keeps the status quo.

With the status quo, Grant, Lincoln and Cleveland would be assigned to play in the Mt. Hood Conference, which includes Barlow, Centennial, David Douglas, Gresham, Reynolds, Central Catholic and St. Mary’s Academy.

Athletic directors at Grant, Lincoln and Cleveland would have to spend a lot of time in meetings with those out-of-PPS schools.

Haskins did not return a request for comment this week, but said upon his hiring last month that he wants to create a state-of-the-art athletic program.

“I believe that academics and athletics go hand-in-hand,” Haskins said in an Aug. 15 PPS announcement about his new post. “Our coaches and I will work to ensure that all student athletes are on track to graduate. They must be passing classes to participate and if students are struggling, we will involve them in a tutoring program.”

The first option in Haskins’ proposal is to eliminate sports at Benson, and combine Jefferson and Roosevelt (since they have the smallest enrollments) to create a seven-team 6A PIL team for PPS.

Benson athletes would participate in sports at their neighborhood school. The seven schools would be Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln, Wilson, Madison, and a combined Jefferson-Roosevelt entry. Jefferson has an estimated 633 possible athletes and Roosevelt has 766; the other schools have between 1,200 and 1,400.

With this option, schools that were too small to field some sports programs will be on a level playing field. Haskins’ proposal says it might improve parent participation and attendance at games because all schools are in Portland.

Other benefits he cites: being a strong 6A league; freeing up space for the Benson campus; reducing the number of coaches, transportation and supply costs; and boosting equity to students at Jefferson, Roosevelt, Benson and Madison who played on teams that weren’t competitive or couldn’t compete in certain sports because there weren’t freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams in their sport.

Another potential perk: to “change Benson demographic to students who really want to be there for focus option and not athletics,” according to the proposal.

Among the few weaknesses of this option, the proposal astutely cites: “Benson community response and initial shock of change.”

Other options

The second option eliminates Benson athletics but doesn’t combine Jefferson and Roosevelt. Depending on their size, PPS schools would play in 6A or 5A.

The proposal calls it a way to “close the equity participation opportunity gap by being creative,” but cites transportation and “politics about Benson with no sports” as the main challenges.

The third and most far-fetched plan is to combine the Jefferson and Benson athletic programs, allowing students at both schools to participate in all of the sports both schools have to offer. Perks include better access to facilities and savings for coach stipends, but this structure doesn’t guarantee one league and doesn’t address equity issues at Roosevelt and Madison.

There’s also the major rivalry between Benson and Jefferson, which former Principal Carol Campbell describes as a “friendly” one.

“Both Benson’s and Jefferson’s communities are extremely strong,” Campbell (now the new principal at Grant) told the Tribune last week. “We have a really good rivalry, but it’s a friendly rivalry. ... It would be hard for both communities to think about giving up their unique identity as Jefferson or Benson.”

From her experience leading Benson for three years, Campbell sees the point about increasing access to students who don’t currently get to participate because of their small numbers. For example, they had to cancel their swimming program two years ago, and some sports like softball can only field two levels of teams, not three. But she says those problems may also be due to their enrollment cap, imposed by the district three years ago to boost numbers at the other neighborhood schools.

Campbell wants to hear more details about Haskins’ proposal and says it needs to be fleshed out well by the public. Personally, she says, “I believe athletics is an important part of everyday high school. I have a tough time seeing Benson, Jefferson or Roosevelt without athletics.”

Rob Cornilles, vice president of Esco Portland, is trying to rally local health science, software, utility and STEM-specific employers to sign a letter of support before the next school board meeting on Sept. 11. He wants the board to lift enrollment cap on Benson, which would let 190 waitlisted students attend.

Yes, that means those students wouldn’t fill the ranks of other PPS schools, but Cornilles says district leaders must consider the needs of students first.

“More than an institution, we need to be thinking about the individual,” he says. “I want Jefferson and Madison and Roosevelt to be successful, but not at the expense of turning our attention away from something already proving itself to be successful. ... To withhold that opportunity from them ... is really contrary to what education is all about.”

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