The Mayor’s Week at Jefferson in Review

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By the time Mayor Tom Potter finished his State of the City speech to the City Club Friday at Jefferson High School, you’d have expected the students, staff and community of Jefferson to be exhausted.

Instead, there was wide-spread excitement and a sense of converging energy that may finally return the school to its former glory. Not that anybody thinks the mayor’s one-week visit will magically transform the school. But the curtain has been lifted on the gross inequities plaguing Oregon’s only majority black high school. There is a growing, inevitable sense that the greater Portland community will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for equal opportunity.

Mayor’s Week started Monday with an all-school assembly, followed by round-table discussions with students. My first opportunity to participate was at the school board meeting Monday night in the Jefferson auditorium.

Jefferson principal Cynthia Harris and Chief of High Schools Leslie Rennie-Hill announced their recommendation, fully supported by superintendent Carole Smith, to merge two of Jefferson’s four academies beginning next fall, a first step toward restoring Jefferson as a single, comprehensive school. (The Young Men’s and Young Women’s academies will remain unchanged for now.)

I had the good fortune of being the first to offer citizen testimony, and welcomed this announcement with the caveat that we must keep the ball rolling once the eyes of the city are off us, and that we are still dealing with a student transfer system that drains over $40 million annually from the Jefferson, Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall clusters. (I’ve posted the full text of my remarks to the school board on my blog.)

My testimony was followed by that of my Jefferson PTSA colleagues Nancy Smith, Nicole Breedlove, Annie Graves and Lakeitha Elliott, who read first from two PTSA resolutions, one calling for an end to the policy that’s brought us such inequity and one calling for a full accounting of multi-million dollar federal grant intended to benefit the Jefferson cluster from which over a million went missing.

Following the PTSA testimony, Harold Williams, Sr. and his son and city council candidate Harold Williams, Jr. took to the stage and offered their multi-generational Jefferson graduate perspective on what the district has allowed Jefferson to become.

Wednesday morning found the Portland City Council on the Jefferson stage, and once again I had the pleasure of speaking first. My remarks centered around the ways in which city policy and school board policy conflict (full text on my blog).

The first agenda item was about Jefferson, and six students spoke. (I wish I had taken notes, so I could give them all credit.) While all six did great, Robert Gill really stood out in my memory as one who brought up the energy level, as did Noah Kone, who also spoke at the school board meeting. Throughout the six students’ testimony (and, in fact, through most of the testimony given to the school board and city council), there was a common thread. These are bright, strong, incredibly resilient human beings, and we as a city are failing them.

The students were followed with more citizen testimony, starting off with city council candidate Amanda Fritz. Fritz had come to do child care during the council meeting, but was persuaded by Jefferson community members to testify to the council instead. She spoke movingly about the opportunities that her children had at Wilson High School across town, and how fundamentally unfair it is that Jefferson students can’t have similar educational opportunities. The PTSA again read from their resolutions, with Lynn Schore and 1955 Jefferson graduate Ron Webb adding their voices. (Willamette Week covered the PTSA resolutions on their Web site.)

Thursday night was the Jefferson CommUnity Fair, with a puppet show for the kids in the CommUnity room, and a meet and greet in the small gym. Food, fun and music was had by all, and many people had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with principal Harris, Mayor Potter and Superintendent Smith.

Friday was the Mayor’s State of the City Address, delivered to the City Club of Portland in the Jefferson Auditorium. I attended with my wife, recently hired by Jefferson to do community outreach. Before the event began, we worked our way out into the lobby for a “10-minute tour” of the school, led by two students. By chance, we were in a group with school board member Dilafruz Williams and city council candidate Harold Williams, Jr., and were treated to a tour of the empty spaces that a decade of neglect has left at the school: half-empty library shelves, the empty metal shop (partially filled with exercise equipment), a mothballed TV studio, and an empty band room. (We did not tour the mothballed auto shop, wood shop, or home ec rooms.)

Of course the State of the City Address is attended by all the movers and shakers, and I had the opportunity to meet Harold Williams, Sr., pillar of society in Portland, who introduced me to PCC Cascade campus president Algie Gatewood.

Mayor Potter’s speech was broad-ranging, and found strong resonance when calling for more racial understanding in Portland. “We must … find a way to begin a conversation in our community about race,” said Potter. ” It is an uncomfortable topic for many, but I believe race will remain an ugly, open sore on the body politic until we start talking honestly with each other…and listening.”

People who whine about minorities “playing the race card” need a reality check. Come to Jefferson High for a day, and understand what it means to walk in a kid’s shoes who is denied the basic educational opportunities afforded white students in other parts of town. Then tell me this isn’t about race. (I know, I know, it’s really about economics, but you cannot ignore the fact that Jefferson is 63% black, and has been starved for courses more than any other high school in town.)

Friday evening was a perfect capper to the week, as the Jefferson varsity boys basketball team thumped Grant in a display of athletic excellence and superior work ethic. We ended up sitting with PTSA president Nancy Smith, right next to Mayor Potter and his wife Karin Hansen (a former Jefferson teacher).

Throughout the week, I met so many incredible people at the school, and I wish I could remember more than a handful of names. Armando LaGuardia testified to the school board Monday night, representing the first of three generations at Jefferson (his granddaughter is a senior this year). Shei’Meka Newmann, a Benson alum who has become involved at Jefferson, and runs the Lunch Jones program. All the students, who showed incredible poise and eloquence, and all the teachers who continue to weather the storms. There are many, many other incredibly involved parents, alumni, retired teachers and community members doing their damnedest to support the students at Jefferson.

It’s time the city and school district stepped up to do the same.

(Sorry for the long-winded post; you can blame it on McAngryPants, who requested a recap. I’ve got even more at my blog if you’re really interested.)

3 Comments so far

  1. melissa lion (unregistered) on January 21st, 2008 @ 7:53 am

    It was a great post, and necessary, especially for the North/ Northeast Portland parents.

    We want our son to attend Roosevelt and your posts and passion and Wacky Mommy’s posts and passion give me hope and energy to begin my fight here in St. John’s.


  2. Steve (unregistered) on January 21st, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    Thanks for the kind words. As I said to the school board, we’ve got to keep the ball rolling and fix Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall, too. Jefferson is the poster child for class and race inequity at PPS, but those other schools have been starved, neglected and experimented on, too, and also lose millions of dollars annually to out-transfers.


  3. Wacky Mommy (unregistered) on January 21st, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    If anyone wants to get involved, drop me an e-mail, would ya?



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