When the totally-rebuilt Kellogg Middle School opens at 3330 S.E. 69th Avenue, on Powell Boulevard, in the fall of 2021 – some students, now enrolled in other middle schools in Inner Southeast, will be diverted to make up its student body. That much is clear.
The Portland Public Schools (PPS) administration calls this process "rebalancing" the student load of the schools. Providing input for this process has been a group of parents and administrators that PPS calls their "Southeast Guiding Coalition". You may have heard about this; it's been in the news around town. But what you may not have heard about yet is what its effect will be on two celebrated PPS programs in Inner Southeast – programs that people have moved here to participate in. The news is not good.
As part of this rebalance, the Mandarin Dual Language Immersion (MDLI) programs at both Woodstock Elementary School and Hosford Middle School are to be moved, in their entirety, to a different school, about four miles north – quite some distance where those students and their parents live now.
Affected: More than half the student body
"With 57% of the students at Woodstock Elementary in the MDLI program, this means more than half of our students will be moved to Bridger Elementary!" exclaimed Woodstock Elementary PTA Vice President Ehren Schwiebert – a parent with a fourth-grader in the program.
Schwiebert, who is also a member of the "Southeast Guiding Coalition", explained that schools which have more than one educational program – such as Woodstock Elementary, which not only has the dual-language Mandarin immersion program, but also a standard school track for students who live in the Woodstock school neighborhood boundary area – invited a parent from each program to join the coalition group.
Asked why he, and others, believe that the "Southeast Guiding Coalition" and the PPS "District Advisory Team" intend to move the Mandarin Immersion program away from Woodstock Elementary, Schwiebert told THE BEE, "One of the 'Guiding Coalition's Objectives' stated at the outset of the balancing process was to 'minimize co-located programs'; so Woodstock's MDLI program was already in jeopardy when the coalition began its work.
"The current proposal, if implemented, will remove all of the Mandarin immersion program students from Woodstock – as well as the students from the Mandarin immersion program currently at Harrison Park (K-8)," Schwiebert said. "The K-5 kids from both Woodstock and Harrison Park's MDLI programs would then be merged into a program hosted at Bridger, which would become an all-Mandarin immersion program, with NO 'neighborhood track'.
"The reasoning behind this decision seems to be to place native-Mandarin-speaking students – who live in several clusters around the eastern edge of town – into a school closer to their part of town. It is troubling to a lot of parents at Woodstock that many of these families were not really consulted on this."
The major concern expressed by the Woodstock Elementary PTA, Schwiebert stressed, is the very future of the school. "Removing half the student population would drop Woodstock's enrollment down to dramatically low numbers – meaning lower funding, less administrative support, and fewer program options for the kids who do remain at Woodstock."
And, moving out the MDLI program would impact diversity too, Schwiebert pointed out. "Currently, only a little more than half of Woodstock's student population is white; with the removal of the Mandarin Immersion program, that number jumps to something like 75%."
The School District's objective to minimize co-located programs in schools is not entirely misplaced, acknowledged Schwiebert. "Co-locating two programs under one roof can pose administrative challenges with under-enrolled programs, or an imbalance between the two programs.
"But Woodstock has NONE of the problems that the "Southeast Guiding Coalition" is tasked with solving! There's a healthy balance between the two programs," Schwiebert insisted.
More than that, the Woodstock campus is not overcrowded, nor is it underutilized; there's a shared school community between the two programs: "Kids from both programs do all kinds of schoolwide activities together – eating lunch, recreating, and participating in after-school activities – all, together.
"It's all one school community; the only difference is that some kids are learning Chinese for part of the day, while other kids are following a more traditional school track."
Parental worry expressed at online open house
After an online "open house" on November 19, Schwiebert said he was encouraged to see some 800 viewers tuning in. "But it was hard to tell how many [attendees] were interested in Mandarin Immersion specifically, since the school rebalancing is hitting a lot of different programs. What I came away with was that there is a large number of very upset people at these schools, who do not want this current proposal to be implemented."
Wrapping up his comments, Schwiebert told us that a group of concerned Woodstock parents have drafted a letter; it had gathered about 130 signatures as of the date of our interview. Here's a link to it – bit.ly/WoodstockParentLetter
Shu Ren families feel ignored
For years, a nonprofit organization called "Shu Ren of Portland" has raised money to fund cross-cultural learning opportunities for MDLI program students and families at Woodstock Elementary School, Hosford Middle School, and Cleveland High School.
Speaking to THE BEE on behalf of the Shu Ren Directors, and relaying their concerns as a group, was Co-Chair Maggie Berg.
About the online Open House, Berg revealed, "The meeting materials and other information were not translated into Chinese until the '11th hour' – and their 'Chinese Speakers Focus Group' was held just two days before the mid-November open house.
"For many Chinese-speaking families, this was the first time they had seen this scenario, and learned about the PPS Enrollment and Program Balancing District-Wide Open House and Focus Group meetings," Berg said.
According to information put out by the "Southeast Guiding Coalition", more than 800 telephone surveys of parents had been completed – with the implication that parents generally had agreed with their plan. But the telephone survey was not offered in Chinese!
Some Shu Ren members were contacted, but Shu Ren Directors said they don't know how many. "According to PPS phone survey statistics, 21 Chinese-speaking families currently in the MDLI program completed the survey (6.3% of the program's families), and 36 Asian families participated in the survey (11.6% of all Asian families in PPS)," remarked Berg. "What is most outrageous is that Chinese-speaking families have told us that they received their phone surveys in English – and those families who don't speak English were unable to complete the phone survey!
"One MDLI program parent told us that her interviewer called from a Spokane number," Berg remarked. "So the parent only answered the phone because she has relatives in Spokane. How many PPS families missed out on this survey, because they were expecting a phone call from PPS, not from an unknown number?"
Not rebalancing, but disruption
Asked how the idea of moving the students from Woodstock and Hosford Schools has been received by Shu Ren members, Berg said the consensus was, "We don't see this as 'rebalancing' the program, but instead, as a disruption of a real PPS 'success story'.
"Our MDLI program is a national model; so, rather than celebrating and replicating it, it appears as if PPS is uprooting and transplanting it, simply in the hope that it will still succeed in a new home," Berg said.
Numerous Shu Ren families, not just in the Woodstock School catchment but from all over the District, have told their organization that they will pull their children out of the MDLI program if it leaves Woodstock, Hosford, and Cleveland. "There's a very real risk that the [remaining] MDLI program will consist of mostly native Chinese speakers, rather than the half native Chinese speakers and half English speaking Mandarin language learners – the ratio that serves the goal of PPS's Dual Language Instruction programs," Berg added. That even ratio is what actually makes the program "immersive" – each native speaker learns from the native speakers of the other language through daily conversation.
"We at Shu Ren certainly do NOT feel 'heard and understood' in this process, so far," Berg said. "For example, native Chinese speaker Min Cai, a Woodstock MDLI program parent on the 'Southeast Guiding Coalition', has voiced our community's concerns – particularly those of Chinese-speaking families – time and time again at every single one of the coalition's workshops. But, she believes that her voice, speaking for those she represents, has been disregarded and dismissed.
"We have informed PPS that we believe that the proposed changes perpetuate segregation and systemic racism; we have yet to hear a response to our concerns. Meanwhile, we continue to see the suppression of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] voices in the PPB's Enrollment and Program Balancing process."
Asking for no changes now
As far as Shu Ren families are concerned, the best outcome of this "rebalancing" process would be no change. "Not without truly engaging with the communities that will be affected – particularly the Chinese-speaking community; PPS has not done the proper outreach it says it has," Berg asserted.
The group also protested making changes during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. "Our families, like all school-age children, have 'been through the wringer' this year – adjusting to distance learning; not being able to be with their peers; being apart from their friends," Berg declared. "For the grownups, the rebalancing project has only increased our stress and anxiety levels.
"After enduring so much change this year, when we finally emerge from the pandemic, the last thing our kids need is the prospect of moving to a different school – in a very different neighborhood and away from friends."
Portland Public Schools responds
THE BEE asked Michael Bacon, Director of Dual Language for PPS, to comment about all these concerns expressed about the proposed Southeast Portland "rebalancing" plan – particularly from the MDLI program families.
However, it was PPS's Public Information Officer, Karen Werstein, who actually responded to our inquiry.
"The 'Southeast Guiding Coalition' has been working on scenarios and taking significant feedback and input for months.
"The decision for Phase 1 of this process, which only focuses on the enrollment structure for the opening of Kellogg Middle School, will take place by January, so that Kellogg Middle School can open by fall of 2021," Werstein said.
"While some of these kinds of questions and concerns [about MDLI programs] have come up in Phase 1, the 'Southeast Guiding Coalition' won't actually begin that work until February – and a decision won't be made until [later in] the spring; so, the topic of moving any immersion programs is not being decided right now.
"There have been many opportunities for people to participate in Phase 1 of the process from weekly southeast guiding coalition meetings, the virtual open house, culturally specific and language-specific focus groups, surveys and feedback forms," Werstein insisted. "There will also be many opportunities for folks to participate and share feedback and thoughts in the next phase of the process, which begins in February."
If you want to explore this issue further yourself, the webpage devoted to the PPB's Enrollment and Program Balancing process can be found online – www.ppsenrollmentbalancing.com
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