Diffusing the Choice Bomb
Could a Harris-Eastside merger help 4J?
BY ALAN PITTMAN
A proposal to possibly diffuse one of the more explosive school choice vs. equity issues before School District 4J has emerged.
The proposal may involve the possibility of a merger or some other kind of hybrid collaboration between Harris neighborhood Elementary and Eastside alternative elementary.
“We’d like to explore a solution for our schools that might be found in a joint project,” said Harris teacher Mary Christensen with Eastside teacher Susan Gusinow standing at her side. The two spoke three hours into a five-hour emotional hearing before the school board Feb. 20.
Three years ago Superintendent George Russell recognized a problem the district has been struggling with for decades. He reported that the district’s school choice system had cherry-picked the white and wealthy kids, leaving neighborhood schools “poorer and browner.” On Feb. 8 Russell announced his “Schools of the Future” proposal for school closures, relocations and enrollment limits to help address the issue.
One of Russell’s more controversial proposals was to close Harris neighborhood school (67 percent free and reduced lunch, FRL, and 25 percent Latino) and give its building to two co-located alternative schools — Eastside (5 percent FRL, 1 percent Latino) and Fox Hollow (10 percent FRL, 1 percent Latino).
Harris parents testified that closing their poorer, browner neighborhood school to make room for the richer/whiter alternative schools was inconsistent with the stated goals of the district and unfair. “This is how we save Harris Elementary,” joked one mom. “All we need to do is change the name to Harris Alternative School.”
Amid the heated debate Feb. 20, the proposal from the seemingly competing Harris and Eastside teachers drew whoops of applause. Christensen said nine teachers from the Harris and Eastside school had met recently to discuss the dilemma. She noted the two teacher groups had “shared pedagogies and passions” and believed in working together they might find a way to meet district choice and equity goals “while preserving and furthering the spirit of both schools.”
Christensen asked the board for more time for the two schools to discuss the possibility of working together and work out the details. “We found it very exciting; it’s also a little scary for some people in this room.”
School Board members Craig Smith and Charles Martinez both said they were “intrigued” by the teachers’ testimony. “Whether we’re talking about a hybrid or some kind of merger, that needs to be pursued vigorously,” Martinez said.
Here’s a look at some of the more obvious pros and cons of the merger/hybrid idea:
• More diversity. Merging one of the poorest, most Latino schools in the district with 4J’s wealthiest and whitest school would take a big step towards diversifying a district segregated by school choice. A co-located Eastside/Fox Hollow would be 8 percent FRL, but a merged Eastside/Harris could be near the district average of 35 percent FRL. The district and education researchers have found that schools with concentrated poverty often struggle with performance. Some Eastside parents have said they would like to diversify their school.
• More equity. Avoiding the closure of Harris would avoid the perception or reality that the district has unfairly chosen its poorest, brownest children to bear the brunt of school closure.
• Less disruption. The current proposal would disrupt five schools: Harris by closure, Eastside by moving, Fox Hollow by moving and Parker and Edison neighborhood elementaries by adjusting to accommodate displaced Harris children. A merger would affect only Eastside and Harris.
• Synergy. District officials and some Eastside parents have noted that their alternative model of mixed grades works well with addressing the diverse needs of students who are both ahead of their age group and behind. In turn, Harris teachers offer the experience of helping diverse lower-income students who can be more challenging to teach.
• Improved enrollment. A merged school would have about 320 students. That would save Harris from threatened closure for dropping below the district’s 300-student target.
• Less crowding. Many parents testified that they favor smaller, more intimate schools for their children. A merged or hybrid Eastside/Harris would have about 110 fewer children than a co-located Eastside/Fox Hollow.
• Fox Hollow likes it. Fox Hollow parents forcefully opposed moving them from their current building to co-locate with Eastside. The parents expressed concerns about leaving their attractive school site for crowding, classrooms in trailers, traffic jams, weakened language immersion and possible inter-school friction with Eastside.
• Less cost. The Harris building is big enough to serve Harris/Eastside without adding trailers. A co-located Fox Hollow/Eastside would overcrowd the building and require the district to spend up to $2 million on building improvements and putting four classrooms in two double-wide trailers.
• Established precedent. During the last round of school closures three years ago, co-located Evergreen, an alternative elementary, and Edgewood, a neighborhood elementary, worked out a successful merger that some said they hoped could serve as a future model for other schools.
• Possible Eastside opposition. Harris parent Meg Hamilton agreed with the teachers that the district should “consider a hybrid or a blend” of Harris and Eastside. “There’s interest at both our schools.”
But Hamilton was not joined at the microphone or in later testimony by an Eastside parent, and it remains to be seen if those parents would oppose a merger. Harris would gain by not being closed, but Russell has not put Eastside under a similar threat.
If Eastside lost its alternative school status, it could also lose or dilute the many advantages that the district has bestowed on alternative schools. Through district policy and/or parental fundraising, alternative schools can often have smaller class sizes, fewer of the most challenging lower-income and high mobility students to teach, a more homogenous group of top performing students, protection from school closures and stable class sizes, the school district has reported.
Some comments from Eastside parents include statements welcoming diversity. But some other comments have attacked the district and the media for “scapegoating” the school for lacking diversity. It is possible that if the professional teachers back it, they may be able to make a merger work and convince any reluctant parents.
• Friction. If Harris and Eastside don’t merge into one neighborhood school but rather somehow co-locate, the district could get more of the friction that it was trying to avoid by moving Eastside from co-location with Parker. Parker parents and teachers complained that they suffered from crowded classrooms with hard-to-teach kids while down the hall Eastside had concentrated top students in small classes. If the two schools instead merge into a larger alternative school, the diversity gains could be lost over time as alternative schools are not required to admit neighborhood kids.
• Neighborhood school effects. The 4J proposal would move Harris kids to Parker and Edison. Without some of the Harris kids, Edison (23 percent FRL) could be less diverse. Parker is at about the district average for FRL, but at 247 enrollment, may need Harris kids to avoid the threat of closure. Some of these effects could be mitigated by redrawing school boundaries.
• Smaller schools. An Eastside/Harris merger could leave Fox Hollow and Parker below 300 students. District officials have stated that they would like larger elementary schools to save money and offer large school amenities. But no parents testified that they want larger elementary schools. It’s also unclear how the district would save money. In the past, the district estimated a $200,000 annual savings from closing a smaller school, far less than the $2 million it proposes to spend on additions and trailers to crowd students into one school.
• Fox Hollow issue remains. Fox Hollow would continue as an advantaged, small alternative school largely lacking diversity. But it’s also unclear how co-location with Eastside at a convenient south Eugene location would increase the school’s diversity.
• Real estate. The district could make a few million dollars by selling the 7 acre Fox Hollow school site to developers. But the development could be controversial, and neighborhood and city opposition could eliminate or reduce the sale value.
The School Board has tentatively scheduled a possible decision on Russell’s proposal for Wednesday, March 19.