Portland Skyline
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If any big-city school district should have a handle on its high school dropout problem, it would surely be Portland, Oregon.

Compact and bike friendly, this darling of urban planners draws middle- and upper-middle-income professionals to live inside its city limits. And they do something that their counterparts in Detroit or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles rarely consider: they send their children to public schools. In a school district that enrolls 47,000 students, only 43 percent are poor (in Chicago, 85 percent are) and a majority are white (in Philadelphia, 13 percent are). White and middle-class teens are far less likely to drop out of high school than their minority and low-income peers.

But a shockingly low percentage of Portland’s high school students graduate on time: just 53 percent. That puts its dropout rate on par with rates in Philadelphia, Louisville, and El Paso—all bigger districts with much higher concentrations of poverty. A majority of Portland’s dropouts are white, only half qualify for subsidized school meals, and 90 percent are native English speakers.

It’s not that Portland hasn’t tried to do better. The school district has implemented a series of reforms, many of them strikingly similar to what New York City and Philadelphia, two cities with rising graduation rates, have been doing. A few of these reforms—turning to private outfits to run schools, upending the faculty and curriculum at schools with chronic low test scores, using sophisticated data systems to pinpoint instructional needs—are steps the Obama administration wants to encourage all school districts with achievement problems to adopt.

But in Portland, those reforms haven’t worked. Despite fifteen years of effort, the city’s dropout rate hasn’t budged. How Portland took good ideas and managed to botch their implementation—through inattention and a failure to measure and demand results—is a cautionary tale for those in Washington who want to use federal dollars to get local schools to do right by their students.

Portland’s first effort to grapple with its dropout problem began in the mid-1990s, when the school district vastly expanded what had been a small network of community-based alternative high schools. Founded in the 1970s and ’80s, these privately run nonprofit programs had a good reputation around Portland for welcoming troubled teens who had dropped out of traditional high schools and reconnecting them to the classroom and society.

Expanding these schools seemed like a good way to benefit more of these vulnerable kids. But it also happened to benefit the Portland school district’s bottom line. Voter-enacted changes in the way Oregon funds schools hit the Portland school district hard in the early 1990s. The surest and quickest way to refill its coffers was to lure back students who had dropped out.

It seemed like a win-win: disconnected students could find their niche in a nontraditional school setting, and the Portland school system could keep up to 20 percent of the state funds that paid for them to be there. Enrollment in the alternative programs doubled between 1991 and 1997.

National meetings were convened in Portland to let other youth-helping agencies see firsthand the variety and power of Portland’s second-chance alternative schools. New York, Philadelphia, and others created similar networks of community-based schools with nontraditional structures and extra social and emotional support to help dropouts or near dropouts get back on track.

The city’s second stab at fixing its dropout problem began in the early 2000s. At that time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was pouring major money into promoting a particular school reform idea: breaking up big, institutional high schools to create small, personalized ones. Researchers had found links between these more intimate school settings and higher test scores and graduation rates. Leading Portland-area employers teamed with Oregon’s biggest philanthropy, the Meyer Memorial Trust, to pool funds and snare $2.1 million more from Gates to remake three of the city’s big traditional high schools—those with the most disadvantaged students and the worst dropout rates. Those schools were broken up into multiple small academies housed under one roof, each with its own defined academic theme, such as business-technology and “renaissance” arts.

As those campuses were reorganizing, another effort got underway: an unprecedented study, also funded by foundations (including Gates, Carnegie, and Mott), of who dropped out in Portland and why. Released in May of 2007, the study tracked every student in the class of 2004 and yielded three major findings. First, the dropout problem was much bigger than the state or school district had let on: the on-time graduation rate was not 85 percent, as had long been officially reported, but 54 percent. Second, it wasn’t just poor and minority students who were dropping out; white kids were, too, at alarming rates. Finally, and of most interest to school district leaders, likely dropouts could be pinpointed as early as ninth grade based on their attendance, test scores, and grades. In Portland, the study found, students of any race or family background who failed to accumulate 5.5 credits during ninth grade were four times more likely to drop out than those who earned enough credits.

The study sparked immediate action. Then superintendent Vicki Phillips, now head of education initiatives at Gates, created an “academic priority” program in which the district identified by name all incoming ninth graders with the most risk factors for failing to earn 5.5 credits. Each high school was given an average of $120,000 apiece to design its own approach to helping these students. Some schools used the money to reduce class sizes in ninth grade and asked their best teachers to teach them. Others assigned blocks of freshmen to a common set of core academic teachers who met together to monitor their progress. Still others appointed adult mentors to conduct daily or weekly check-ins with the shakiest students.

In theory, the three strategies Portland chose to address its dropout problems—plentiful and welcoming alternative schools, innovative small academies in place of large traditional high schools, and targeted extra support for ninth graders at risk of failure—were the right ones. They have certainly worked elsewhere. New York City’s small high schools showed slightly higher graduation rates just a couple years after they opened. Philadelphia’s growing network of alternative high schools has brought positive results. Researchers in Chicago and Baltimore confirmed that identifying at-risk students in eighth and ninth grade and helping them pass enough classes to be on track toward graduation is the smart way to prevent dropouts.

But in Portland, these same steps haven’t led to any measurable improvement in the high school graduation rate. The reason is that in each case, the school district failed to press for results and to fight against—or even to recognize—the political, cultural, and bureaucratic forces that typically undermine reform.

Take the “academic priority” program for at-risk ninth graders. Leaving it up to individual schools to design their own interventions probably made sense—the district’s central office certainly had no monopoly on good ideas. But for such a decentralized strategy to work, the district needed to measure and reward outcomes so that the principals and teachers would have an incentive to drop practices that weren’t working and adopt others that were. This the district failed to do. Three years into the project, there has yet to be a public report on how many “priority” freshmen at each school passed their classes or earned enough high school credits after getting extra attention. In fact, the district’s office of high schools, which launched the ninth-grade initiative and was supposed to oversee it, was subsequently dismantled and its staff dismissed.

The city’s effort to break up its big high schools into smaller schools-within-schools suffered a similar fate.

When Portland first won grants to create the new small schools, backers pledged that students would be known and nurtured and challenged so well that 97 percent would earn diplomas. But, five years into the Gates-led initiative, overall graduation rates at the small academies remain stuck at the same unacceptably low level of the old comprehensive high schools they replaced. One high school faculty revolted and reverted to the big school model.

Why the inability to improve? Part of the reason was the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required giving students at failing schools the ability to transfer out. Most students who could read and write at grade level opted to flee, leaving higher concentrations of lower-achieving students at the smaller schools. But those schools never had much of a chance to compete, because they never had real autonomy. New York City hired full-fledged principals for its new small high schools and gave them the ability to hire their own teachers. Portland paid small school principals what it paid vice principals at large schools and vetted their qualifications at that same, lesser standard. Teachers who were on staff at the big schools were recycled into small school faculty, whether or not they or the small schools considered that the right fit.

Portland’s biggest failure, however, has been its community-based alternative schools. In 2007, the most recent year on which the district has reported, these privately run alternative schools enrolled about 2,500 students but issued just 156 diplomas. By contrast, New York City’s alternative schools now issue diplomas to more than half the overage, undercredited students who enter them.

The reason for this staggering difference has to do with expectations and accountability. In 2004, New York schools chancellor Joel Klein closed a host of dropout recovery programs that weren’t getting the job done. The school district now issues detailed yearly performance reports on each of its transfer high schools, and schools that don’t measure up risk being shut down. “One of the principles that drive the New York effort is the belief that all kids can graduate,” says JoEllen Lynch, former executive director of the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation in New York. “Those students need a lot more support, instructionally and emotionally, but you have to move them toward a diploma. That’s just a basic expectation of a school.”

Such expectations and accountability have simply never been part of Portland’s alternative schools system. Those schools are funded with public money, but because they are privately operated, they are not subject to state accountability reports on their test scores or graduation rates. The way school district and city leaders see it, getting disengaged teens to reconnect with school is a victory in itself. The atmosphere inside these schools reflects these low expectations. They project a youth-embracing vibe in which earning credits, mastering algebra, and learning to use proper spelling and grammar can seem downright square. Preparing for the GED—a vastly substandard credential to a diploma—is considered rigorous. Students can take classes on comfy couches, bring their guitars to class, and spend hours talking about current events—all engaging, but not the ticket to a proper high school diploma, much less college or career.

As you might imagine, this high-sympathy, low-demand ethos makes the alternative schools wildly popular with young adults turned off by the city’s traditional high schools (not to mention magnets for troubled and listless teens from nearby school districts). In New York City, about 5 percent of high school students attend community-based second-chance alternative schools high schools, known there as “transfer high schools”; in Portland, nearly 20 percent do.

Having such a large portion of the city’s students in alternative schools can depress a district’s graduation rate by excusing regular middle and high schools from addressing students’ problems early on, notes Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who specializes in dropouts. “School officials can say, ‘Well, we have lots of good alternative schools for students who need more support than we can give, so the best solution is really to try to get these students there,’ ” rather than provide supports or prevention services in our regular schools, he said.

None of this should be news in Portland, by the way. The local paper, The Oregonian (for which I work), has run several front-page articles showing that the alternative schools have poor attendance, weak oversight, lax academic expectations, and extremely few graduates.

The potentially good news is that the Portland schools are beginning to show signs of waking up. Superintendent Carole Smith, who spent decades running one of the city’s better private alternative schools, has indicated that the district will start vetting such schools for results beginning this fall, cutting off contracts to those that don’t measure up. She has also said that this fall the district will begin posting data on at-risk freshmen at the traditional high schools who are supposed to be getting extra support and attention under the “academic priority” program. That should make it possible to see how good a job individual schools are doing in helping these at-risk kids pass their classes and earn sufficient credits to graduate.

In the face of declining district enrollment, Smith is also pressing a plan to close one or more high schools and lessen the socioeconomic gulfs between those that remain. Her hope is that having fewer, larger neighborhood high schools—the opposite of the Gates approach—will allow each one to guarantee more catch-up opportunities for struggling students, plus an array of fine arts, music, college prep, and world languages now lacking in some of the less affluent Portland high schools.

Smith’s focus on improving the district’s graduation rate—she calls it “our primary challenge”—is welcome. But delivering results will require a serious change in expectations at school district headquarters and around the city.

The attitude that has long infused Portland’s alternative schools—that troubled teens can’t be expected to graduate, and that just getting them to show up is a victory—has also defined Portland’s general approach to the dropout problem. Grant makers and school board members praised the district for its creativity and partnerships in addressing the dropout issue, even as the schools were still failing huge numbers of students. Good intentions were rewarded, not results. If New York and Philadelphia, cities with much bigger problems, can improve their graduation rates, what excuse does Portland have not to do so, too?

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Follow Betsy on Twitter @BetsyHammond. Betsy Hammond covers education for The Oregonian.