Lent Elementary sits near a freeway. Unlike with Tubman Middle School, PPS has no plans to assess air quality at Lent

JONATHAN HOUSE/THE PORTLAND TRIBUNE - Katherine Rodela walks with her son Rudy at Oliver Lent Elementary School. She worries about the air quality near the school, due to its proximity to I-205.Portland Public Schools is setting aside up to $2 million to upgrade the heating and ventilation system at Tubman Middle School in anticipation of its fall 2018 reopening. The district also earmarked up to $100,000 on environmental testing at the school, including assessments of the school's outdoor air quality, with the promise that it will address any issues that arise.

The spending comes in response to uproar from parents and school board members over possible environmental hazards at the school, which sits next to Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter. Frequent bottlenecking on I-5 has the district worried about diesel particulates from truck traffic, among other hazards.

But Portland Public Schools officials say they have no plans to look at air-pollution issues at other schools adjacent to major freeways, such as Lent Elementary School.

"The focus is on Tubman," said Amber Shoebridge, a spokeswoman for the district. "There is nothing being done about outside air quality at Lent right now."

A recent unscientific survey of air quality near Lent suggests this may be the wrong approach. The survey, from a coalition of environmental groups including the Oregon Environmental Council, suggests there's reason to look further at diesel pollution at Lent, which sits next to Interstate 205 in East Portland. The study, intended to offer a snapshot of air pollution problems and not a definitive account, measured air samples at 12 locations around the Lents neighborhood. The sample at Lent Elementary 300 feet from the freeway registered the third-highest level of black carbon particles, a component of diesel pollution, in the study. That sample was 16 times the Oregon benchmark for what's considered safe, meaning that continuous exposure could increase a person's risk for cancer.

For Jen Coleman, an outreach director at the council, the upshot is clear: "We ought to do more studies." She would include additional schools, Coleman said.

"There are going to be air-quality concerns at other schools," she said, "and they're not getting routine testing."

Tubman is expected to draw students from some of PPS's poorest elementary schools, which largely serve students of color. That is one reason the school board acted quickly to put testing in place. Members said they want to be sure that Tubman's historically underserved students are safe.

The student demographics at Lent are in some ways similar to those expected next year at Tubman. More than half of Lent students are considered "economically disadvantaged." About a third are learning English as a second language.

Parents at Lent say they're disappointed but not surprised that PPS isn't making testing a priority at their school. Lent this year is dealing with a rat infestation, parents say, and that has drawn a lot of their attention. Last summer, as Lent recruited a new principal, district administrators told concerned parents that PPS would give extra attention to Lent.

"They told us 'Lent is our top priority,' " said Emily Bailey, who has three children at the school. "We're not seeing that."

Katherine Rodela, another Lent mom, said any change in priorities at PPS would have to come from parent advocates. "Unless we're loud," she said, "the district won't care."

Beth Slovic

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