Hard choices ahead for ‘filled-to-the-brim’ David Douglas schools

Without funding available to build and expand schools, read this and learn how DDS administrators are scrambling educate outer East Portland’s growing number of students with what they have ‚Ķ

Rob Buckner, 5th Grade teacher at West Powellhurst Elementary School, can’t fit even one more student into his already-packed classroom.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Voters in the David Douglas School District (DDS) made it clear, last November: “No new taxes”. The bond measure requested by the schools garnered only a 44% “Yes” vote.

But homeowner’s reluctance to increase funding hasn’t stopped their flood of new students into the already over-crowded schools.

Back to school
“Honestly, we’re having challenges finding space to educate our students, given our growing population,” is how Allen Browning, principal of West Powellhurst Elementary School put it to us.

“We’ve had combine programs and offices through the school,” Browning continued. “Our reading coach and Title 1 program are all housed in one small area. Our school counselor’s office was moved into a closet-like space. Every classroom is full. If we have any more children come here, we will have no place to put them.”

As we tour the school, Browning didn’t grumble or whine. The teachers with whom we speak appear to be cheerful and conscientious educators. Instead, they seem to have taken on their crowded situation as a challenge. The principal shows us how the gym’s former locker room was turned into first-rate classrooms to accommodate the increase in students. “We use the stage for after-school programs, the closets for book rooms. We’re making the most efficient use of the space we have.”

And, we learn, some of the other schools in the district are even more crowded, especially in the south end of the district.

Once-rural district faces explosive growth
In 1959, three small, rural districts – Russellville, Powellhurst and Gilbert – joined with the David Douglas Union High School District to form a 1st through 12th grade school district.

Over the decades, enrollment has increased, peaking in 1970. It slightly decreased during the 1980s, but has resumed growing as unincorporated East Multnomah County continues to grow.

Superintendent Barbara Rommel, David Douglas Schools.

“By 1993,” explained the district’s superintendent Barbara Rommel, “we needed additional classrooms.” Voters approved a $20 Million bond measure that funded building classrooms on existing schools, and paid to renovate others.

But the kids kept on coming. In 2000, voters approved a $40 Million bond to refurbish a once-shuttered building, and build a new middle school. It funded new classroom space at many buildings, including the high school.

But, enrollment continued to increase.

2006 adds a ‘school’s worth’ of students
“Last year, we had a 4% increase,” Rommel continued. This translates into 400 new students, she said. “In many districts, this number represents the population of an entire school.”

Because families with older students have been moving into the district, David Douglas High teaches 2,900 students. “To accommodate the increase,” Rommel explained, the school board used some ‘reserve funds’ to build an additional wing of classrooms at the high school.”

Challenges of changing demographics
Over the last five years, the superintendent told us, they’ve seen a dramatic increase in kids eligible for free or reduced cost lunches. “David Douglas has the highest level of poverty represented by that factor of any of the fifteen largest school districts in Oregon.”

Another challenge to DDS educators is the influx of newcomers to the district. “Currently, about 25% of our student population needs ‘English as a Second Language’ assistance. Those students represent over 46 different languages or dialects spoken in the home,” Rommel said.

“B” grade doesn’t translate into votes
Asked for her analysis of the fall election results, Rommel told us, “Our polls said residents give us a “B” ‚Äì a pretty good grade. So, residents feel we’re dong a pretty good job. My personal feeling is it [that ‘no’ vote] was an economic statement. I think residents were saying, ‘We just can’t afford it’.”

The FFD board was disappointed, Rommel said, “but they are pragmatists. They both understand ‚Äì and share ‚Äì the concerns of the community.”

The school board, she continued, has a dual responsibility: To be fiscally responsible with the public’s dollar; and to make sure students get a full range of educational opportunities. “An example is our music program. Students begin their instrumental music in grade school; we have full time, certified music specialists in every elementary school. As students move up the grades, the performance level of these students allows them to go into music as a career. But, our main mission is still ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’.”

Kindergarten a key to success
What helps their students do well is the kindergarten program, Rommel said. “We have full-day kindergarten for every student in our district. Since the state only funds a half-day program, the board makes up the rest the support from general funds.”

Kindergarten students in Mrs. Leah Robinson classroom get a full school day of literacy-based education.

The result: 70% of the students meet educational objectives. “The increases in learning are strongest among students who come in with some kind of learning risk factor. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, ESL assistance, or special education students ‚Äì all of these at-risk groups showed remarkable gains, from being in this program.”

Condemns consolidation concepts
Last fall, Mayor Tom Potter briefly floated an area-wide school consolidation plan.

“A consideration is looking for efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” Rommel responded to the notion. “Bigger isn’t necessarily better. I don’t believe most parents want their children being bussed across the metropolitan area to fill an empty school.”

Looking at the efficiency aspect, she said DDS has a fewer-than-average number of administrators; business-level and support level services are run very lean. “Look at the Chalkboard Projects’ Open Book; it shows that we manage the district in a very thrifty way.”

Rommel added that the district is almost the perfect size. “We’re small enough to retain contact with our community; yet large enough to offer a wide range of elective subjects and extracurricular activities.”

Funding the district’s future
We asked bluntly, “OK, so what’s the plan?”

“This is a dilemma,” Rommel candidly responded. “One of the options is to look at increasing class size.”

Another option, she explained, is to shuffle classrooms. “For example, a number of high school classes are being held in the Children’s Service Center. When the new high school wing is finished, we can relive pressure on crowded elementary schools by using that building for classes, even to the point of making a small primary school in that building.”

Others suggest using “modular classrooms” at existing schools. “These trailers are an expensive fix, and don’t make a good educational environment. And, with the increased school populations we’re seeing, we need every square foot of playground space we have.”

Other possibilities are to eliminate the full-day kindergarten program ‚Äì a step that would free up 10 classrooms. “It would break my heart. We’ve documented the tremendous good that the full-day program does for students. It makes them successful learners from the start, reducing resources spent on remediation.”

ABC’s of school funding
Puzzled why districts, other than Portland Public Schools, successfully raise funding, we asked why it is so difficult in outer East Portland.

“There are no industries, and little business, in the district,” Rommel explained. “The entire burden for education falls upon the homeowner and residential property owner. If you have a good industrial base, those businesses shoulder part of the responsibility ‚Äì it reduces the amount homeowners must pay.

“In Beaverton, for example, a 47 cents-per-thousand levy raises $195 Million. In DDS, a $1.12 -per-thousand levy raises only $45 Million.”

State funding possibilities
To find out if state aid might be available, we talked with a man who was educated in the DDS school system from 3rd grade through the high school level, Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley.

“The schools are bustin’ at the seams with more children poised to come in. The district has a substantial challenge to find classroom space,” agreed Merkley. “Our families [in the school district] are working incredibly hard. They are squeezed too tightly to afford a property tax increase.”

Merkley said the state legislature recognizes that this is significant problem for fast-growing school districts that have a low prosperity basis. “One of the ideas we’re exploring is to see if ‘system development charges’ can be used to help build new schools.”

Another concept, the “Kansas Plan”, is up for discussion, said the state legislator. “It is a brand new idea. It allows districts with lower tax base to get a matching grant from the state government. The match would be 2-to-1 in David Douglas. But I don’t know if that will have the support of educational organizations.”

You can help: volunteer
We asked if parents and interested citizens might directly help DDS schools. From the schools themselves, we learned they can.

Rommel answered, “Just go to any neighborhood school to the office, say ‘I’d like to volunteer’.”

Principal Browning added, “We get many supportive comments from parents. Parents, you are welcome to help out in our school! We’d love for you to become part of your child’s education.”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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