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Overcrowding at Chapman Elementary is prompting district to bump programs

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland is bursting at the seams, but there are no easy solutions in sight. Elsa Menendez says the overcrowding problem at Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland is poised to change her life one way or the other.

Her son attends the Spanish Immersion program at Ainsworth Elementary School in the West Hills. But the district’s enrollment-balancing effort is planning to move that program to the old East Sylvan building 3 miles away as part of a cascade of boundary changes down the west side to alleviate overcrowding at Chapman and balance enrollment elsewhere.

Menendez believes the idea to move the Spanish program is foolish on several levels, but that perhaps the biggest problem is that many students won’t follow the program.

“It’s not going to solve the problem. You are just creating another problem,” she says. Rather than driving across town to an unknown quantity, she will probably just put her son in their celebrated neighborhood school: Chapman.

Menendez claims 50 percent of the other Spanish-immersion families also live near Ainsworth and might decide to stay, too.

“The numbers they are working with are not real,” she says. “It’s all these uncertainties that are going to make people think twice.”

Menendez also believes the fix will be short-lived — that by 2020, even more children will move into or be born in the area.

“The northwest part of the city has grown to a capacity and they didn’t plan for that. They didn’t plan for this demographic. There needs to be definitely a new school,” she says. “There’s no space for our (Spanish immersion) school in the northwest. It’s not enough to serve all these new kids that are coming in.

“Long term, I think that this is a crisis,” she adds. “I hope that the mayor — whoever the new mayor is going to be — is going to take a look at this because every parent in Portland right now is completely stressed out.”

What about a new school?

A petition is going around the Internet with nearly 1,000 signatures calling on city leaders to use development funds to help build schools. Called “Petition To Use City SDC and Urban Renewal Funds For Portland Public Schools Expansion” on, the Coalition of Concerned Voting Parents lists the numerous housing projects going on in Northwest Portland.

“To continue with this sort of development without diverting some of the funds from the SDC fees and the dedication of increased tax revenues for school bonds to SITE and BUILD new schools for existing and incoming residents is unsustainable,” reads the petition.

But what would it really take to build a new school in increasingly dense Northwest Portland?

“Financial resources and an available piece of land,” wrote Tony Magliano, chief operations officer of Portland Public Schools, in an email. “Property is hard to find in an urban environment and is very expensive.”

Based on construction costs for the new $43 million joint Faubion PK-8 School and Concordia University teaching program building, new construction for a school would be around $350 to $375 per square foot.

Some saw this coming

Back in 2010, Juliet Hyams was one of the people looking into planning for growth in Northwest Portland as then-president of the Northwest District Association and a member of the Central City Urban Renewal Evaluation Committee. She says she often brought up the need for a new school in the Lincoln High School cluster.

“They didn’t really do anything about it,” Hyams says. “As far as I can tell, they didn’t listen.”

Portland Public Schools did open a new school in 2011 on the ground floor of the Ramona Apartments, Northwest Quimby and 13th Avenue, but it is primarily a Head Start preschool.

“I just think that schools are not connected to land use at the city. They’re not connected to neighborhoods. They’re not connected to (the Portland Development Commission),” Hyams says. “I don’t mean to be critical of everything they are doing because I think some of it is right, but they are just out-of-step. And the city is too; they are just rubberstamping all of this housing. Things are not synchronized between the various jurisdictions.”

Magliano says PPS does work with PDC and the city, and the school district’s long-range facilities plan is included in the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

There is even coordination with the committee planning for the more than 13-acre post office site that PDC is in the process of purchasing for development.

PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman says they have a good relationship with the district, which is considered a stakeholder in the post office site-planning process.

“(Magliano) has been at the table and certainly PPS interests have certainly been heard and are well-known throughout this process,” Uhlman says. But he notes that even if the sale goes through, the full build-out of that property isn’t expected for another 20 years.

“There isn’t a short-term solution there,” he says.

Chapman brand drives demand

While schools throughout Portland have been on an enrollment rollercoaster, the same hasn’t been true for the Lincoln cluster, which has had steady growth. Data from Portland State University’s Population Research Center shows while all other clusters had low or declining birth rates in the late-2000s, Lincoln had a small, 8 percent, baby boom. What’s more, the trend was toward older mothers who are more likely to keep their families in that area rather than move to the suburbs.

Darrin Amico, a Hasson Co. Realtor specializing in Northwest Portland, says the area is known for good schools and an involved PTA. The overcrowding issues at the school haven’t done much to weaken the Chapman brand.

“Chapman Elementary has a really strong reputation with doing a good job with the students that they’ve got,” Amico says. “People in inner Portland in general are very school-conscious.”

Amico says it’s hard to quantify the value of a good school or even the value of the perception of a good school, but people are definitely making real estate decisions based on it.

For two comparable houses in different school catchment areas, “the Chapman house is going to be worth more, probably $10,000 more,” Amico says. “Even if they are right across the street.”

So, if that classification changes as a result of the boundary change process?

“If they find that it’s going to be more of a rural school setting, there tends to be a hard push against that,” Amico says.

A long history of Chapman overcrowding

Local historian Tanya March says overcrowding was a huge issue at what was then called Chapman Grade School during World War II.

As workers flooded in to Slabtown for ramped-up steel and other defense work, their children flooded the schools.

In 1941, Chapman had 465 students, March writes. By November 1943, the figure had ballooned to 1,600.

To manage the huge and sudden influx, the district attempted a double shift of students from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and then from 1 to 5 p.m. But some classes still had as many as 47 students and others were turned away. Many black families did not enroll their children.

In response, the Guild Lake School was built in 1944 to cater to 1,200 children, but it was sold off in 1951 and demolished thereafter.

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Shasta Kearns Moore
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