Portland Parents Boycott Schools Over Education for Minorities

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Charging that school officials are not doing enough to improve education for poor and minority children, the parents of hundreds of black students in Portland, Ore., kept their children out of school last Monday in a protest organized by community groups.

"We will no longer allow black children to be sacrificed on the altar of Portland School Board complacency," said Ronald Herndon, co-chairman of Black United Front', the community organization that led the boycott.

The B.U.F. was joined by seven other groups, including the local chapter of the Rainbow Coalition and the Oregon Alliance for Progressive Policy, an umbrella group of social-action organizations. Other key local groups serving the city's black community, including the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said they supported the coalition's goals but declined to join in the boycott.

African-Americans make up about 8,000 of the 55,000 students in Portland's public schools, which have won national attention for their multicultural-education efforts.

Estimates of the number of children who took part in the boycott varied widely; one survey placed the number at 1,900, while Mr. Herndon claimed 6,000. School-district officials said they would disclose an official tally at week's end after contacting the parents of absent pupils.

The majority of the boycotts were concentrated in the largely black neighborhoods in the north and northeastern parts of the city, where, at some schools, nearly half of the students did not report for class.

"There was no real polarization in the school," said Alcena Boozer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High, where 55 percent of the 1,102 students were absent. "Some students told me they felt pressured to participate, but they also felt they needed to be in their academic classes."

About 100 of the boycotting students attended alternative schools set up by the protesters at seven sites around the city.

At issue is a 12-point plan developed by the community groups for improving learning among minority students. It calls on the school board and the superintendent to project dates by which 90 percent of all students will be achieving at or above grade level and urges the creation of a districtwide panel made up of parents, school-board members, and business people to monitor schools' progress in meeting those goals.

The document calls for the creation of "building-management teams"--composed of community members, educators, and urban-education experts--to operate individual schools. And it holds that teachers and administrators should be evaluated according to their students' achievement and that schools should survey parents regularly to gauge "consumer satisfaction."

The plan, which has been endorsed by 12 civic and business groups, was submitted to the school board in fall 1989. Mr. Herndon charges that, apart from a series of private meetings among board members, the school board has not formally responded to the plan.

"We're having a boycott because everything else we tried with the school board has gotten us nowhere," he said.

Carol Turner, who presided over the school board during some of that time, said the board has "gone out of the way" to hear the groups' concerns.

"A board does not automatically accept a plan that some special group presents," said Ms. Turner.

Moreover, school officials say they have already put in place efforts similar to those called for in the plan.

"The direction you have suggested is in large part a road we have already been traveling," wrote the city's school superintendent, Matthew W. Prophet, in a letter to Mr. Herndon in December, several weeks after the groups threatened a boycott.

Mr. Prophet, who is black, noted, for example, that the district already: sets a target date for improving achievement among 3rd-graders, conducts annual surveys of parents, and sets up teams of parents and community representatives to advise principals on plans for improving learning.

"We still want principals to be accountable," Ms. Turner said. "We have to see the results come in on site-based management a la Chicago before we try it."

She also noted that teachers cannot be evaluated on the basis of their students' performance under a contractual agreement with the Portland teachers' union.

"And we would argue that evaluating teachers for things they cannot control is not something we would want to do," she added.

A week before the boycott, the school board also announced it would form a task force, which would include four members of Black United Front, to make recommendations on the plan. Its report is due by April.

But noting that most of the panel's members would have connections to the school district, Mr. Herndon said: "That's like asking Cookie Monster why the cookie jar is half empty."

At the heart of the groups' concerns are wide disparities between the academic achievement of black and white students in the district. They note, for example, that only 50 percent of black students read at or above grade level, compared with 80 percent of white students. Similarly, 60 percent of black students test below grade level in math while 80 percent of white students are at or above it.

But district school officials said those numbers, while disturbing, omit an important point: the gap has been closing for the last decade.

In mathematics, for example, the proportion of black students at grade level has increased over the last 10 years at a rate 3.4 times greater than that for white students.

The boycott was the third led by Black United Front in a decade. During the group's 1980 and 1981 boycotts, 80 percent of black students stayed out of school.

Some black leaders criticized the boycott this time, however, for "hurting students who need help the most."

Vol. 10, Issue 21, Page 5

Published in Print: February 13, 1991, as Portland Parents Boycott Schools Over Education for Minorities
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