Successful school must cap enrollment, yet wants to grow
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Benson High School students Dodji Ketevi (center, from left), Angela Durns and Twaun White check out the inside of a new 2012 Ford Focus on Monday during a visit by Ford engineers including Jennifer Brace (right). Ford visited Benson's auto shop to engage and inspire students pursuing careers in design and manufacturing.

Benson Polytechnic High School, one of the Portland Public Schools' success stories, will be turning away close to 200 freshmen in the fall because the district wants to boost enrollment at neighborhood schools.

For the second consecutive year, the district enrollment office will cap the number of freshmen entering Benson in an effort to 'right size' the neighborhood schools, as outlined in last year's high school redesign effort.

The PPS enrollment and transfer lottery - which will happen in the next few weeks - allows Benson 260 spots for incoming freshmen. More than 400 have applied, 382 of whom listed Benson as their first choice.

Some alumni say that limit is not just aggravating, but also shortsighted, considering the latest demand for manufacturing jobs - and shortage of skilled workers - here and nationwide.

'Why are we doing this to people so early in their life?' says Rob Johns, a 1977 Benson alum. 'It's not a lottery to make you a millionaire. This is a lottery to give you a chance.'

The enrollment debate comes as Benson is trying to rebuild its programs back, after serving just 850 students this year. That's 100 students fewer than last year, its lowest in at least 15 years and about half the size it was eight years ago.

The school had to drop its drafting, engineering and computer engineering programs as well as band, art and drama, unable to support them with those numbers.

Despite that, the school's success continues.

The 92nd Annual Tech show in February celebrated Benson's rich history, its unique role as the only Portland Public School built for and focused on career-technical education, also known as CTE.

Benson's 81 percent graduation rate came in second in the district to Lincoln's 84 percent; it is also the only district high school to graduate more blacks and Hispanics than white students.

The success came as Benson students, staff, alumni and local business supporters were still in survival mode, having fought off a proposal last year that would have drastically changed the school into a half-day skills center for upperclassmen district-wide, with no athletics.

Benson's four-year model remained, but at a cost: the new label as a focus-option school that is limited to serving 850 students.

If the cap on enrollment continues, Benson is on track to being 'systematically destroyed,' Jim Schoelkopf believes.

'Benson was very successful and became a threat to the neighborhood high schools,' Schoelkopf says bluntly, from his perspective on the district's 28-person Perkins/CTE Advisory Team, and as a senior research associate for the national education firm MPR Associates. 'Rather than mining for the lessons that can be learned and the effective practices Benson has implemented, the neighborhood high schools chose to create an outlier that would just die a slow death.'

Workforce training

According to a March 5 CNN Money article, there's been such a surge in factory business, and there's such a lack of skilled workers to fill that need, that manufacturers are looking abroad for qualified machinists, tool and die makers, computer-controlled machine programmers and operators.

In addition, Benson supporters point to the fact that the Obama administration is trying to boost American manufacturing jobs through workforce training programs and sharpening students' competitiveness in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in high school and college.

'We estimate 600,000 open positions now in manufacturing,' says Gardner Carrick, senior director of Washington, D.C.-based Strategic Initiatives. 'We need to have a pretty strong and well-defined pipeline of jobs. ... What we'd like to see are more programs at the high school level that get kids both experience in and develop an interest in manufacturing - both engineering careers and skilled production.'

Portland's mayoral candidates have expressed similar ideas, with hopes of 'building partnerships with local businesses,' but haven't talked much about Benson.

In fact, Benson has formed partnerships with several businesses, offering six paid union apprenticeships for students with local companies such as railcar maker Gunderson and Tice Industries.

Right-sizing plans

The school board's rationale to limit Benson's enrollment comes down to one number: 1,350.

That's the target enrollment for each of the district's neighborhood high schools, as outlined by last year's high school redesign plan.

The school board settled on that number as the minimum threshold to provide the same level of staffing and programs across the district, under the umbrella of equity.

By ending transfers into the too-big schools (Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin, Cleveland and Grant), the thinking was that the too-small schools (Madison, Roosevelt and Jefferson) would fill up with students from surrounding neighborhoods.

Benson has always drawn most of its students from the Roosevelt, Jefferson and Madison clusters, so the thinking was that if Benson's enrollment was not limited, it would sabotage or at least slow the right-sizing plan.

Trip Goodall, the district director of high schools, came to his post after the redesign plan was approved. While he recognizes Benson's plight, he says the right-sizing plan needs to 'be honored,' but it will be evaluated and reconsidered as the neighborhood high schools fill up.

'I cannot say enough about the work that's happening at Benson right now; that's something we're going to have to take a good close look at in terms of how we move forward,' he says. 'We need to have the ability to see out what it's designed to do.'

Numbers matter because fewer students mean fewer staffing and programs. While some of the foundational CTE programs have been cut, majors in automotive, construction, electrical, manufacturing, arts and communications and health and science occupations remain, along with the core subjects, including math, science, English, social studies and language. Benson's athletics are competitive despite low numbers of students.

In addition to limiting Benson's size, the school board said it would add CTE programs in the neighborhood high schools, so more students could access them.

With the current $27.5 million budget shortfall, that isn't happening any time soon, Goodall admits.

A few other things are happening, though. Juniors from other schools who want to explore some CTE programs at Benson this fall may do so for part of the day, providing their own transportation. Twenty to 30 slots will be open for that opportunity; other details haven't been figured out.

Each neighborhood school has career coordinators in place. And Goodall is co-chairman of a group called the Pathways Council that's working to attract guest speakers, job shadowing, internships and career exploration opportunities into the schools.

The group's focus is to strengthen partnerships and CTE programs across the district. It formerly had a singular mission, as the Blue Ribbon Task Force on CTE.

Speaking to jobs

During the past six years, Benson fell victim to the federal No Child Left Behind law, because students who received those priority transfers came in without knowing about Benson's programs and were often unprepared for the rigor.

The district had forced Benson to drop its entrance requirements, which included an essay, teacher recommendations, GPA and certain levels of science and math.

Benson's programs suffered, and the public - and the school board - saw it as an 'escape valve' for students who didn't want to attend their neighborhood schools, rather than a destination.

To avoid the same mess, Benson was allowed to bring back its application process this past year, asking students to write an essay indicating why they wanted to attend.

Priority NCLB transfers are no longer in effect, since the state is requesting a waiver from the federal requirements.

Benson also is being proactive about what the program offers. The school moved the Tech Show up from April to February to give students a sneak peak at programs.

Staff gave presentations on CTE programs to eighth graders at every middle and K-8 school in January and hosted two shadow days that drew 300 students.

'The message here was, 'Here's what we're about; please don't come unless you're prepared to participate in these activities,' ' says Principal Carol Campbell, in her first year at the school.

As for the future, 'we would like to have more students, as it's difficult to continue to have the number of programs we do with lower numbers,' Campbell says.

The alumni aren't waiting until that happens - they're working to aggressively seek support - such as a grant for new drafting equipment - from business partners who are excited to help build it back up.

Dick Spies, a 1964 Benson alum who serves on several of the district's long-term facilities planning groups, thinks Benson should also be a focal point in the next construction bond measure.

'The challenge is to not only provide a great learning environment, but we have to create a reason for the person who doesn't have a kid in school to get excited about (a bond measure),' he says. 'We need to be able to speak to Benson, because they speak to jobs.'

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