Eugene Weekly : News : 2.14.08

Class War
4J bumps poorer and browner kids for richer and whiter kids

Three years ago Eugene 4J School Superintendent George Russell lamented in a report that the district’s school choice system had cherry-picked the white and wealthy kids, leaving neighborhood schools “poorer and browner.”

But now Russell is proposing that the district kick some of those “poorer and browner” kids out of their neighborhood school to make room for richer and whiter kids.

Russell recommended that the district force the poor and mostly Latino children at Harris neighborhood elementary school out of their building to make room for wealthier, whiter children from the Eastside and the Charlemagne French immersion alternative schools. This recommendation is a key part of Russell’s Feb. 8 “Shaping 4J’s Future” report on school closures and moves.

Harris is 67 percent free and reduced lunch (FRL) while Eastside is 5 percent and Charlemagne is 10 percent, according to 4J data. Harris is 25 percent Latino while Eastside and Charlemagne are both 1 percent Latino.

The 4J School Board has planned a public hearing on Russell’s recommendationsfor Feb. 20.

Alternative school proponents and some school board members have argued that Harris isn’t being closed just to make room for the alternative programs and that a neighborhood school would have to close anyway due to declining enrollment.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re closing a neighborhood school for an alternative school,” School Board member Eric Forrest said at a Jan. 30 meeting to applause from Eastside parents.

But 4J’s school choice system is a prime reason for the declining enrollment in south Eugene neighborhood schools, according to Russell’s 2005 report.

Little has changed since then, according to 2008 school data. If not for school choice, Harris would be packed with 313 students. The neighborhood school’s percentage of poor kids would decline from 67 to 42 and its Latino population would drop from 25 to 13 percent.

Adams, another south Eugene neighborhood school that the district considered closing, has also been hit hard by school choice. With choice Adams has 189 kids, 59 percent poor and 7 percent Latino. Without choice, the Adams enrollment area has 497 students, 33 percent poor and 6 percent Latino.

Little also appears likely to change in the future. Although one of the stated goals of the district’s Schools of the Future effort is reducing the economic and racial segregation in schools, it appears that the recommendations could do the opposite. Russell would replace a diverse neighborhood school with two conveniently located alternative schools that lack diversity.

Moving Fox Hollow and Eastside to the old Bailey Hill building in far west Eugene could have allowed Adams and Harris to better compete for the wealthier and whiter south Eugene parents who didn’t want to follow the move. But Russell said earlier the long commute to the more diverse neighborhood would have been too hard on alternative school parents. He didn’t mention that those parents could simply choose to avoid the trip by attending their neighborhood school.

Russell did propose moving two charter schools that he said have helped starve Adams of enrollment — the Village and Montessori schools located at the Willard building. His report timeline states: “Decommission Willard in June 2010, charters must move.” The Village School is 40 percent FRL, the Montessori school 32 percent. In an earlier proposal, Russell said the two charter schools could move to Bailey Hill a yearearlier.

To help attract students back to Adams, Russell recommended that the district revitalize the school, perhaps with the creation of a Spanish dual-immersion program. The Adams neighborhood is “economically, culturally and racially diverse,” Russell wrote. “It reflects the diversity of Eugene that we would like to see represented in our schools.”

To help neighborhood schools struggling with the hardest-to-teach students, Russell also recommended that the district give schools with higher percentages of FRL, non-English speaking and special education students more money per student. He didn’t say how much more. Russell also said the district should consider paying for school busses to alternative schools.

Russell also recommended limiting transfers to South Eugene High School and Roosevelt Middle School to better balance enrollment at the secondary level. He recommended closing Coburg’s small elementary school, moving Meadowlark to a location on the edge of town and moving the Family School to the Jefferson building.

Russell wrote this month that he expects his recommendations will “stir strong emotional reactions. … Everyone sees these issues through their own lens.”

4J is “finding itself more and more stratified every year,” Russell wrote. The 4J superintendent asked, “Do we want to be a system of neighborhood schools with a choice of options available to students and parents, or a system of choice with neighborhood schools for those who can’t or don’t exercise choice? In my mind, the answer is the former.”