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Parents push PPS to restore more high school positions

A group of high school parents from across Portland Public Schools say they’re glad Superintendent Carole Smith asked the board on Monday night to restore 58 positions to the high schools.

But they say that’s not enough.

In a letter delivered Tuesday to the district, the Portland Parents Coalition says it believes students should be allowed to take a full day of academic classes, rather than the seven of eight periods they would be offered under Smith’s new proposal.

“We are appreciative that the superintendent heard parents and students and has proposed to add back/release teachers based on enrollment ratio,” coalition leaders wrote.

However, they say, “Parents cannot support a third year of a partial school day for students. PPS and the Board have had two years to address the shortened school day and loss of instructional time for students.”

Smith told the board Monday night she wants to form a high school schedule task force, made up of principals, teachers, parents and community partners to examine the current class schedule.

She said a High School Action Team has also begun meeting to develop additional strategies to accelerate gains in PPS’ high school graduation rate.

But the parent coalition says it's an urgent issue that can't wait for a task force decision.

Caroline Fenn, a former Lincoln High parent, believes PPS is out of compliance with the state's minimum standards for instructional time for students. For high schools, state law requires a minimum of 990 hours of “instructional programs” to qualify for state school funds.

“Not all PPS high school students have the opportunity to take a full day of instruction, which we believe puts the district in violation of the letter and spirit of 990,” Fenn says.

Advocating for kids

The coalition is led by a core group of four longtime schools advocates, including former Portland School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards, now a Nike executive; Franklin High parent Lisa Zuniga; Grant PTA President Monique McClean; and Cleveland parent Mike Rosen.

They began meeting days after Smith first proposed her budget on April 15, organizing by email and Facebook, rallying supporters, testifying at recent budget hearings and meeting privately with district leaders.

“It took an incredible effort from the high school parents to make this happen,” Rosen says. “It’s not like what we were asking for was unreasonable; we're asking them to do their job, do what the law requires.”

That's where it gets sticky. PPS and the teachers' union have been engaged in multiple rounds of arbitration hearings over this issue.

"PPS has appealed the arbitrator’s cap on the number of classes most students can take, and the school district is in discussions with the Portland Association of Teachers to change contract language from which the 7 class cap stemmed," Smith says.

"We want answers now; we want things to change before next school year," says McClean, the Grant PTA leader.

McClean transfered both of her sons to PPS from private schools, because they liked the offerings.

Despite the scheduling mess, "I still believe in the public schools, and my kids can get what they need because I can supplement if they need to," she says. "But I worry about the kids whose parents aren't in that position. They deserve to have a full school day so they can have the skills to succeed."