After four months of meetings by a School Closure committee, Superintendent George Russell has recommended that the district close two schools (Whiteaker and Bailey Hill) next fall and consider closing six more schools (Coburg, Santa Clara, Willakenzie, Edison, Washington and Westmoreland) in coming years. The school board plans to act on the recommendation by March 21.
Russell says the closures are necessary to save about $200,000 a year per closed school to address a $4.1 million budget shortfall over the next two years.
But the school district's push to close schools has sparked criticism that the closure decision unfairly targeted poor, minority and neighborhood schools, ignored research supporting small schools, and was rigged from the start.
"It sure looks like it has something to do with race and class," says Majeska Seese-Green, the mother of a Whiteaker student.
Whiteaker kids are the poorest and most racially diverse kids of any school in Eugene. Eighty-five percent of Whiteaker kids are poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program, according to state data. With Whiteaker's high Latino population, 54 percent of the school's kids are Hispanic or black.
Bailey Hill, the other school targeted for immediate closure, is 51 percent poor and 10 percent black or Hispanic. Overall, neighborhood schools are almost twice as likely to serve low income and black or Hispanic kids as alternative schools.
This segregated, two-tiered education system came about through the district's system of school choice. Choice allows parents to drive their kids cross town to other schools if they don't like their neighborhood schools. About 38 percent of Eugene parents take advantage of the option.
"They don't want to be with the lower income people," says Theresa Figueroa, another Whiteaker parent.
In the Whiteaker neighborhood, almost half the kids in the area have transferred out to other schools. The drop in attendance has left Whiteaker as one of the smallest schools in the district and put it on the closure chopping block.
"They're bleeding the neighborhood schools dry," says Mac McFadden, a member of the closure committee and an advocate for the poor and homeless. "It's not a fair system."
Besides Whiteaker, many of the district's other poorer schools also suffer from school choice. River Road Elementary, for example, has 47 percent poor students and 24 percent Black and Hispanic. More than half the kids in the neighborhood transfer out. The most popular destination is Corridor alternative school, where only 12 percent of the students are poor and two percent Black or Hispanic.
Choosing another school is not an option available to poorer families who have to work long hours and lack the car, time and energy to shuttle their kids to school. At school closure meetings, many of Whiteaker's Hispanic families said transportation problems made their neighborhood school their only choice. In one Spanish-language input session, only one of the 10 Latino families present said they owned a car.
By promoting segregation, the district's school choice system has created some of the deepest racial and economic divides in the state. In general, the city of Eugene isn't segregated into ghettoes of deep poverty and neighborhoods of mansions, but it's school system is.
Of all the elementary schools in Oregon, Eugene boasts two of the very poorest and two of the very richest. The alternative Fox Hollow French Immersion and Corridor schools rank in the top 10 of 734 schools, based on a state index of socio-economic status. Whiteaker and Patterson Elementary, where more than half transfer out, rank in the bottom 10.
In testimony to the school board and closure committee, many parents cited the benefits of neighborhood schools in preserving community cohesion and democracy and in reducing crime, car congestion, and urban sprawl.
"Testimony in the committee hearing emphasized again and again the essential role of nearby schools within walking distance as vital to enduring neighborhood identity, often determining people's choices about where to live and work," Dan and Eleanor Herbert wrote in an e-mail.
Neighborhood schools support community by mixing students and parents of different racial and economic backgrounds to promote understanding rather than stereotyping, McFadden argues. "You're not going to overcome racism by stratifying kids by race. You're not going to overcome classism by stratifying kids by class."
The proximity of neighborhood schools also makes it easier, or possible in the case of low-income families, for parents to come to the school to volunteer and talk to teachers.
In another advantage, "the presence of children in a neighborhood reduces crime," says McFadden, noting that criminals fear that parents looking out for kids will report suspicious activity.
Last year a district committee studying school choice recommended that the district preserve neighborhood schools. These "schools foster neighborhood stability, help neighbor meet neighbor, and provide a focal point for neighborhood activities. They support the greater community goals of promoting strong neighborhoods and reduced transportation trip-making," the school choice committee found.
The school choice committee reported that the valuable diversity and neighborhood qualities found in the city's smaller schools should not be sacrificed for cost efficiency. "If cost efficiency were the main criteria in school planning, all schools of similar grade level would be of the same size and, to a certain extent, offer similar programs. This task group opposes that approach."
The committee recommended that "cross-training of elementary teachers to be generalists as well as having a specialty (such as special education, music, art, or foreign language) & could allow smaller schools to offer programs as diverse as a larger school."
Jan Wostmann, a Laurel Hill resident who saw his neighborhood school close 20 years ago, testified that the closure fractured kids' groups of friends, created a loss of neighborhood identity and created a neighborhood with far fewer children.
If Whiteaker closes, families will move and the neighborhood will never recover, says Jack Leavitt, who has a six year old daughter in the school. "It will kill this neighborhood."
"Other schools are much better able to stand up for themselves, defend themselves," says Seese-Green. In choosing to close poorer schools rather than wealthier, "There's less of a political cost because we're not as able to make as big a fuss or a ruckus."
The Register-Guard editorial writers and other alternative school backers have warned that parents would leave the public school system for private schools if the district closed alternative schools.
But there aren't enough private schools in the area to accommodate the 1,700 elementary students that now go to district alternative schools. New private schools take time and money to create. If parents decided to form charter schools using state money, state law allows the district to take a 20 percent cut of the per pupil funding and then funnel the money back to serve the needy kids left behind.
The district also runs a risk of losing per-pupil funding if it closes schools in poor neighborhoods. Rather than dealing with busing, many Whiteaker parents are talking about moving to Springfield where affordable housing still can be found near neighborhood schools, Figueroa says.
District patrons and committees have raised other options to closing all the alternative schools. Some could be closed, scaled back or merged with neighborhood schools. The district could also choose to provide extra funding to some low-income alternative schools by cutting back funding at wealthier schools. The extra money could create magnet programs to make the neighborhood schools more attractive to wealthier parents. The district could also use money from alternative programs to provide free bus transportation to the schools for underprivileged kids.
But Russell and other closure advocates have largely refused to consider such options. Russell says the district and the school board will look at any possible changes to school choice and alternative schools only after the school closure decisions are made.
"They've got the cart before the horse," McFadden says.
"I do not understand the order in which we are addressing issues," River Road parent Stan Micklavzina wrote to the school board. "Issues regarding alternative schools are delayed until next year after schools are closed and perhaps, long standing programs are destroyed." The district should start "to develop a plan that can bring the community back together and give students in the district a high quality education and restore balance in the system, " Micklavzina argues.
The district has known about the issue of segregation caused by school choice for years, but has done nothing to solve the thorny problem. Six years ago, former 4J Superintendent Margaret Nichols admitted that open enrollment "results in an artificial lowering of Whiteaker's socio-economic status."
McFadden says that if 4J does not act soon to address the disparity, the district may lose political support. "If the perception is you're targeting people unfairly, you're going to have a hard time winning support among the voters," McFadden says.
But Russell's closure proposal does nothing to address the district's racial and class segregation. He proposes to close Whiteaker and move most of the former students to River Road and some to Patterson. This would simply move kids among the poorest schools in the district, without reducing economic and racial segregation.
Evelyn Alford, River Road's retired special education teacher, says concentrating so many of the district's poor kids at River Road "spells disaster." The district "will be left with a school that has no educational diversity, and to me, this is very poor decision making."
The district's segregation will likely grow more and more politically and legally problematic as the city's rapidly growing Latino population increases. Many communities across the nation have done nothing about segregation until they've lost a civil rights lawsuit.
Smaller is Better
The 250 minimum would be a radical change for Eugene -- putting 11 of the district's 26 elementary school buildings at risk of closure.
The district's push for bigger schools also bucks a national trend towards smaller, more intimate schools. The latest school research shows that for kids, smaller is better.
In one of the largest studies to date, the prestigious Bank Street College of Education studied the growing small school movement in Chicago and found last year that smaller schools had higher test scores, better attendance, lower drop-out rates and fewer students held back a grade. Less students feel alienated in small schools and there are fewer incidents of violence, according to the study, Small Schools: Great Strides. Small school parents are more involved and satisfied with their schools, and teachers at small schools have greater job satisfaction. The smaller schools did all this by replacing "impersonal" large schools with "small, intimate learning communities where students are well known and can be pushed and encouraged by adults who care for and about them."
The Bank Street study is supported by dozens of other research reports documenting the advantages of smaller schools. Kathleen Cotton of the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory reviewed 69 studies in 1997 and documented many of the same benefits of smaller schools that the Banks study found. "The preponderance of professional literature in the past decade indicates that educational researchers support the concept of small school effectiveness," Cotton quoted one study.
Russell doesn't deny the value of small schools. In his closure report, Russell writes that Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators "says it best" and quotes Houston saying: "Most of us know that schools are too big. & Administrators are trained from day one to protect economies of scale and the idea that bigger is more efficient. It also is more impersonal and disconnected& If we would stop building larger schools and begin breaking the ones we have into smaller units, we would find discipline improve, parental satisfaction increase and even test scores go up."
But Russell says it comes down to money. "If we had the resources to bring all our schools up to acceptable physical standards and operate them with quality educational programs regardless of size, we would do so. But with the current situation in school funding we can't afford to do that."
But the Bank Street study pointed to a recent New York City study indicating that small schools actually save money when drop out rates are considered. "It is far more expensive to allow a student to drop out than it is to invest whatever it takes to ensure that student's graduation."
Michelle Fine, one of the authors of the Small Schools study, e-mailed a closure committee member: "The [school] consolidation movement has long had a rhetoric of larger is cheaper, but the evidence is sorely lacking -- they typically neglect to study transportation costs, school administration growth, declines in academic achievement, loss of after school activities, and loss of school culture."
Russell and other closure advocates also claim than Eugene's elementary schools are too small and could be much larger and still be relatively small schools when compared to state and national averages.
But the Small Schools study documented the benefits of small schools about the same size that Eugene has, "usually no more than 100-350 in elementary schools."
Next year, Russell wants to close Bailey Hill elementary and move the bulk of the kids to McCornack Elementary, creating an elementary school with nearly 500 students, the district's largest.
But it all may have been pointless, say some closure opponents who charge that the district had already made up it's mind which schools to close months ago.
"It appears that the decision was made long ago and a process has been gone through just to make the community feel better," says Seese-Green.
Edison parent Steve Kevan notes that early lists of possible school closures were nearly all neighborhood schools. "The 4J District has set this process up in a way that betrays their agenda," he wrote to the closure committee. "There is a serious prejudice in the 4J District office in favor of the alternative schools & The process is flawed and it puts the viability of all neighborhood schools at risk in deference to protecting the alternative schools."
When the board voted to form the school closure committee last year, it limited the group to choosing which schools to close, not whether to close schools. The board arrived at the decision to close schools without any formal public hearings or exploration of other options offered by parent groups.
Board members emphasized that they didn't want the committee to explore whether closing schools was a good idea. "We need to be very clear it's a recommending and not decision making group," board member Virginia Thompson said last fall.
Board member Beth Gerot said the committee's main role would be public relations in helping to convince the community of the need to close the schools. "The process is very important for the education of our community," Gerot says.
The charge to the closure committee, creating a 25-member committee and even some of the superintendent's supporting language arguing for school closures closely parallels the strategy the district used to close a previous round of schools 20 years ago.
In that 1981 process, the district gave a similar task force a charge to decide which schools to close, not whether or not to close schools. Six schools were closed. A report at the time noted an earlier process had failed because the charge wasn't "clear" that the decision to close schools had already been made.
Apparently, the problem was that the earlier task force with the more open charge recommended not closing any schools. In 1976, a 14-member Small Schools Task Force was appointed by the school board and included nine members representing small schools. The 1976 task force concluded no schools should close. The group found:
* Increases in population would in time result in more enrollment.
* Closing a school would save only about one-third of one percent of the total cost of the elementary school system. "Most costs are dependent on total enrollment and would remain the same no matter where students are located."
* Attendance area boundaries could be
shifted to address enrollment problems.
* "Small schools offer a greater opportunity for student participation and more individualized attention. The more intimate atmosphere offsets the larger schools' ability to provide greater diversity of program."
* The task force found "that the closure of any school would seriously disrupt the texture of neighborhood life."
The 1976 Task Force recommended that neighborhood schools be "maintained even at some additional cost." Unlike the current task force, the 1976 committee recommended that "Whiteaker should remain open in light of the city's efforts to stabilize the inner city."
But school advocates say there are other ways to close the budget gap that the district hasn't tried.
One major option is asking the city of Eugene to pass a tax to fund the schools. Passing the revenue through the city would get around the limits of Measure 5. Portland has used a similar strategy to pump millions of extra dollars into its school system to reduce class sizes.
Russell and other school closure advocates have expressed doubt that such a funding measure would pass voters.
But Whiteaker parent Anand Keathley says school funding has strong support in Eugene. Look at the recent local option levy for 4J, he says, "that passed by 60 to 40 percent, it was huge."
"Is the community willing to support small schools? I think the answer is 'yes,'" Keathley says. "But what really bothers me is that we haven't asked them yet."