Three Cheers for Diversity – on Racial Bias in Portland Public Schools

This posting could have been posted yesterday, on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. However, much of its contents would have made him turn in his grave, so I opted to respect his memory by waiting until today. For over a year now, I have been part of a growing number of area parents who are fighting not only to keep our local high school open, but also to secure a guarantee that it will receive the same educational opportunities and resources that the other local high schools do. I’m talking about Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. It is a school with a glorious early history that has been in an downward spiral for many decades. Ever the optimist, and relatively new to Portland, I refused to see why a school can be failing if it has the support of its community, so I started getting involved. The more I learn about the background that has caused the current state of Jeff, the more astounded I get! In fact, I have developed a healthy dose of respect for the fact that it does as well as it does, considering all the crap it has been through! The most sobering of all discoveries is that behind Oregon’s clean-shaven, liberal facade of modern, progressive (for the U.S, mind you…) ideas, hides a systematic form of insidious, institutional racism that would make the KKK cheer! Amazingly, this is all recent history!

Let’s start from the beginning… The excerpts below are taken from a harrowing article written by  Ethan Johnson and Felicia Williams. It was published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly Spring of 2010 issue under the title “Desegregation and Multiculturalism in the Portland Public Schools”. In order to present the background to the PR disaster that is Jefferson, I’m only grabbing excerpts that pertain directly to the history of traditional, official Oregonian attitudes toward racial diversity (which in itself is scary stuff), the 20th century demographic development of the area surrounding the Albina corridor in general, and to Jefferson High School’s difficulties in particular, but I highly recommend reading the entire article. It is stunning – not to say painful! You should be able to find it here:


The following are excerpts or – in a couple of cases – quick synapses of content elaborated on in Ethan Johnson and Felicia Williams’s article:

“Oregon was the only state to be admitted to the union with a Black exclusion clause in its constitution. In addition to the exclusionary clause, the state also passed limits on the Chinese and Japanese populations during this period, and the Black exclusion laws remained in the state’s constitution until 1926.”


“According to urban studies professor Karen Gibson, “in 1919, the Portland Realty Board adopted a rule declaring it unethical for an agent to sell property to either Negro or Chinese people in a White neighborhood. The Realtors felt it was best to declare a section of the city for them so that the projected decrease in property values could be contained within limited special boundaries.” This practice started the process of establishing the Albina district as an African-American neighborhood.”


The industrial surge caused by WWII called for additional needed workforce,  and Oregon’s African-American population experienced tremendous growth. Not surprisingly, that met with resistance.


“Restrictive housing covenants developed by the Portland Realty Board and Euro-American Portlanders’ resistance to African Americans moving into other parts of the city directed many new African-American residents to the Albina district. A statement representing five hundred Euro-American Portland residents declared:

“If it is necessary to bring large numbers of Negro Workers, locate them on the edge of the city…. It would be much better for all concerned. If they are allowed to fan out through the city it soon will be necessary to station a policeman on every corner.””

The Housing Authority of Portland refused to build the additional housing needed, so Kaiser Steel – the primary ship builder – built worker accommodations on the floodplain of the Columbia River. They called the city Vanport. In 1948, Vanport flooded, and 16,000 people were left homeless, more than a third of whom were African-American. Due to lack of housing and economic opportunities, and the city leadership actively discouraging them to stay, by 1950, less than half of the wartime workforce remained in Portland.

“After the flood of Vanport and demolition of other defense housing, neighborhood associations, realtors, and banks employed various methods to coerce African Americans into the Albina district located in the Northeast quadrant of Portland, where the majority of African Americans in Portland already lived. [As this article was written from an African-American perspective, there is no mention of how other ethnicities were affected.] As African-Americans moved into the district, Euro-Americans moved out. Gibson states:

“During the 1950s, Albina lost one-third of its population and experienced significant racial turnover as White residents left en masse for the suburbs and Black residents moved into Albina from temporary war housing. By decade’s end, there were 23,000 fewer White and 7,300 more Black residents.”


“By 1960, approximately 80 percent of the African Americans in Portland lived in the Albina district. Portland’s residential segregation shaped school enrollment patterns, and the Albina district harbored the majority of schools with disproportionate percentages of African-American students. In 1945, for example, 38 percent of the students at Eliot Elementary were African-American, but by 1957, they comprised 80 percent of the student body. This is especially striking because African Americans only made up 2 percent of Portland’s total population.”


“Bolstered by recent political and economic gains, such as increased job opportunities during World War II and the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, African Americans across the nation began to challenge school segregation…… Initially after the passing of the Brown Supreme Court decision, PPS took the position that “it had a policy of equal education and that it would take no action regarding segregation in Portland Public Schools.”….. In 1962, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publicly accused the district of passively allowing the patterns of segregation to persist, and that same year, the national headquarters of the NAACP administered a study of PPS…… Rather than implement the NAACP’s suggestions, PPS decided to sponsor its own study, Race and Equal Educational Opportunity in Portland’s Public Schools, also known as the Schwab Report, to assess racial isolation and racial disparities in academic achievement….. The Schwab Report recommended keeping the neighborhood school model — which did nothing to alleviate the problems caused by housing segregation — and advised against busing…… Portland NAACP president Mayfield K. Webb commented on the Schwab committee’s recommendations: “It’s amazing to us that this blue ribbon committee can close its eyes completely to resolving the problem on the local situation.”


“Analysis of the Schwab Report reveals that its members acknowledged the significance of historic and persistent racial inequality and discrimination in Portland. In one section, the report highlights discrepancies in enrollment patterns within special education programs. At Jefferson High School, for example, while African-American students made up approximately 25 percent of the school population, 75 percent of the students in the special education program were African American. Moreover, in the 1963–1964 school year, 7 percent of Jefferson High School’s students were classified as “mentally retarded”; of the 162 students in the program, 122 of them were African American. Additionally, PPS had designated 212 of Portland’s 1,181 African American high school students (approximately 18 percent) as mentally retarded. The Schwab Report expressed deep concern for the disproportionate numbers of African-American students in the mentally retarded (MR) program and recommended “a thorough re-evaluation of the special achievement program by qualified disinterested parties … and constant effort to provide a maximum of education to MR students so that initial cultural deficiencies will not be made irreversible” [emphasis added].”

Although the NAACP recommended busing to alleviate racial segregation, the Schwab report vehemently opposed it:

“While the report recognized that institutional racism was a major factor in Portland and shaped the educational opportunities of African-American youth in PPS, its overarching theme — evident in key policy recommendations —conflated race with class and focused on the perceived cultural deficiencies of African-American students. This particular perspective was based on the cultural deficit model, which relied on the idea that if a child’s social, cultural, or economic home life or background was either “depraved” or “deprived,” then the student would have difficulty succeeding academically and socially.


While the NAACP had suggested busing to alleviate segregation, for example, the Schwab committee provided the following reasons for opposing busing:


“We also fear the probable result of taking a small group of Negro children of deplorable home background out of an Albina school and isolating it in an all white middle or upper class school where the Negro children may be two or three grade levels behind their new peers, and where they will be regarded as strangers, outsiders, subjected to ridicule and paternalism.”


“By rejecting busing for socioeconomic and cultural reasons, PPS avoided the issues of racial desegregation and busing entirely.”


“The conflation of race and class becomes even more apparent in the [Schwab] report’s recommendation of compensatory education. Again working from a socioeconomic cultural deficit model, the report suggests compensatory education programs for both poor Euro-American and poor African-American youth; however, examination of the report reveals that there was no attempt to study cultural deficiency in predominantly Euro-American neighborhoods. The focus was strictly on African Americans in the Albina neighborhood.”

The Schwab report resulted in the development of the Model Schools Program (MSP) – the first of a barrage of “programs” aimed at providing “compensatory education”. Out of the ten schools originally recommended for MSP, PPS proved that despite the official “concern” about socio-economic inequality and disparity,  it was really all about race, by dropping two out of the three white schools, and added yet another one with a large African-American population.


“All but one of the MSP schools were located in inner-Northeast Portland, and the majority of the nine schools had African-American student populations that were over 65 percent of the student body.”


“By 1968, the concentration of African-American students to a few schools was a serious concern for the school board.” ….. Racial conflict in the schools was also becoming harder to ignore during the 1960s. The first reports of racial strife at Jefferson High School appeared in 1964, and racial tension was common in 1966 and 1967, with reports indicating that teachers and students of all races were involved. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on Thursday, April 4, 1968, brought these issues to the forefront for PPS.


When the Kerner Report [the result of a federal commission to study racial problems in the U.S.] was published, the Advance Times responded with an editorial titled “Problem Exists Here, Too,” which called on city leaders to do something about racism in Portland: “We hope our own mayor will review this report and will be among those mayors that are tuned in and recognizing that a problem exists that calls for immediate action to wipe out the cause — the cause being white racism.” The city did not take action, and in 1969, there was a large riot on Union Avenue (today’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard) that lasted four days and highlighted the racial problems that existed in Portland.


“Desegregation, especially at Jefferson High School, continued to be a top priority for school administrators who feared federal sanctions, and they continually modified plans during the 1970s to meet desegregation goals. Jefferson High School was considered Portland’s “Black” high school because of both its location in the Albina district and its high percentage of African-American students. Enrollment at Jefferson steadily declined during the 1960s and 1970s; reasons for the decline included a district boundary change in 1965, the opening of nearby Adams High School in 1969 (which resulted in another district boundary change), and the failure to capture incoming students from feeder schools.

In 1971, some of PPS’ top administrators circulated a confidential report, “Portland Schools and Integration — Some Alternatives” with further ideas for ending de facto segregation at Jefferson High School. The plan included seven alternatives, six of which involved clustering or pairing schools with busing to achieve racial integration. The seventh alternative was “closing Jefferson High School or making it an alternative facility.” Realizing the unpopularity of busing Euro-American students, the school board chose option seven and changed Jefferson High School from a general curriculum high school to a magnet performing arts school in 1974. This change failed to reduce the percentage of minority students at Jefferson because too few Euro-American students were interested in transferring to the magnet program. By 1978, the new arts magnet program had attracted 124 new students. Ninety of those were Euro-American, but the total number of incoming students was not enough to reduce the racial imbalance at Jefferson High School.”


“In 1975, the Oregon Legislature passed new guidelines defining any school with over a 50 percent minority population as racially isolated, and in the 1976–1977 school year, Jefferson High School exceeded that mark.The school board was forced to consider other methods to reduce Jefferson’s minority student population. …. In 1977, [Jonathan] Newman presented his plan: Boise Elementary and King Elementary students would be rerouted from their neighborhood high school, Jefferson, and redirected to Lincoln and Wilson high schools. Newman also suggested that minority populations within individual schools be limited to their overall district representation, which meant that since African-American students made up approximately 18 percent of the total [PPS] student body, they should not exceed 18 percent at any particular school. Because the other high schools in inner-Northeast Portland that would normally receive African-American students already had more than 18 percent minority student populations — Adams 36.5 percent, Grant 31.1 percent, and Washington 23.5 percent — African-American students would be forced to travel to schools outside their attendance district.”

Despite fierce community opposition, thus began the one-sided busing. Black kids were shipped out of their neighborhood, but no equalizing number of white kids were shipped in to Jefferson. As one African-American parent was quoted in the article:

“Why should our children be expected to do all of the desegregating? Why doesn’t the community participate? Their children don’t have to ride buses and face strange new schools where they are unknown and many times not wanted. I want my child to get the best possible education and if that means bussing her across town I don’t mind. But I think white parents should meet us half way. All they have been expected to do so far is to let us go to their schools.”

Approximately a month after the original Newman proposal, the Portland Observer reported that Jefferson High School’s problems were caused by parents from the feeder schools who deliberately ignored attendance district boundaries and sent their children to Benson, Monroe, or Roosevelt high school instead of Jefferson. The article notes:

“Although a certain percentage of the feeder school graduates would “legitimately” go to Benson, Monroe, and other high schools to take advantage of special curricula, the coalition [of Jefferson High School parents] feels that a significant amount are escaping their geographically-designated school because of Jefferson’s “assigned” reputation of being a “bad, Black school.””


“When asked why PPS focused on busing rather than enforcing attendance boundaries, [then PPS Superintendent] Blanchard cited a lack of enforcement resources.”


“Jefferson High School’s enrollment had steadily declined during the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1974, 1977, and 1980, the student body dipped below 1,000 total students. …. Converting Jefferson into an arts magnet school in 1974 had a marginal impact on Euro-American student enrollment, and PPS was left with several high schools that were significantly under capacity. In the early 1980s, PPS identified for closure several schools with low enrollment, and once again, Jefferson was on the short list. Several student boycotts and BUF [Black United Front] strikes had their intended effect and the school was saved. Adams and Washington-Monroe high schools were closed in 1981, sending approximately 500 new students to Jefferson. The school’s negative reputation began to fade, and more students transferred to Jefferson for the arts magnet program. A gang-related shooting on the school’s front steps in February 1988 once again painted it as a dangerous place, and enrollment declined. In the three years following the shooting, Jefferson lost over 400 students.”


Okay, fast forward to now. Over the last decade or so, there has been a tremendous turnover of residents within the Jefferson cluster. The area has become gentrified, and many young families have moved in. North and Inner NE Portland are still the only truly diverse areas in this city. As evident above, Jefferson’s recent history is a PR nightmare, and would be students are still hemorrhaging to other schools. As a result, Jefferson has continued to be systematically dismantled and stripped of its resources. Politically, it’s a hot potato, and despite the PPS School Board’s recent attempt to shut its doors forever, it has been transformed into a “hybrid-focus school”, yet another new and untested format. More on that in a future posting… Over the last few decades, over 30 programs have been funded, researched and implemented at Jefferson – only to be shut down prematurely by the District. The programs that were indeed proven to be effective, have been promptly installed at other local high schools. Along with the disruptive stops and starts of all these programs, its leadership has consisted of a revolving door of administrators. Obviously, none of this is conducive to success, and it wasn’t until about four years ago with the arrival of Dr. Cynthia Harris that the school enjoyed some semblance of stability. The benefits of this stability manifested itself in improved ratings, and the school moved from being a Tier 3 Title 1 school to a Tier 1 – in other words – it was about to lose its Title 1 status. For the first time in a long time, it also regained its “Satisfactory” rating. That is a very good development, and should have been celebrated. Instead, Dr Harris was unexpectedly, and instantly removed, or as it is called “placed on administrative leave”.  The official reason is a money-related issue found in last year’s audit, but those who have read that audit claim that those issues were minor. I have only read the audit report from the previous year, where in fact, she receives praise for her work:

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your hard work and dedication over your student body funds. The findings noted on the audit are easily correctible for future audits and shows your effective use of financial resources….”

The overnight removal of Dr. Harris occurred last spring. She is still on leave. Last I heard, she has still not been told exactly what she is accused of. Media has provided next to no follow-up. In light of the historical evidence of the School Board’s continuous undermining of Jefferson, it is easy to be suspicious. But, things have changed…. North and Inner NE Portland today is not only racially but socioeconomically and culturally diverse. Over the past 10-15 years, its relatively affordable real estate attracted lots of young families, who are now putting their efforts into improving Jefferson’s cluster schools for the benefit of their children. For some of us, the diversity itself was also a draw, in an otherwise very white-bred city. It is in all of our best interest to preserve our local high school. Parents from all over are starting to come out to show their support. The PPS School Board’s main sound-bite arguing for the instant closure of Jefferson High School last spring, was that “People are voting with their feet”. True, they have been. But it is also true that many of the high school students who are residing within the Jefferson cluster while currently attending other schools, have tried to come back to attend Jeff. With a remarkable frequency, they have been turned down. (!?!)  Why??  I have no idea. The PPS School Transfer Lottery is based on the availability of space. Why are these kids not allowed back to their neighborhood school??? It makes no sense at all, and all things being equal, deserves to be pointed out…

There are many things Jefferson currently lacks, but space is not one of them. This alone sets it apart from many other Portland schools that are bursting at the seams. In future posts, I will try to outline some of the many good reasons to support your local school, and how the mechanisms of school funding stand in direct correlation with curricular offerings and academic equality. I will also present things that are currently very positive about Jefferson. If you’re still with me – thanks for reading! This was a long one…


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
This entry was posted in Jefferson High School, Local interest, On Community and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Three Cheers for Diversity – on Racial Bias in Portland Public Schools

  1. megan says:

    Thank you for this article. As a parent of a Jefferson feeder school, I want to find a way to make Jefferson thrive, as well as see some equity across all of PPS, especially within our inner N/NE neighborhood schools. I’m all fired up, and hope to see – and be part of – major changes.

    • annamadeit says:

      I’m right there with you! I have another Jefferson posting in the works that should be up either later tonight or tomorrow. It talks about things that are currently very positive about Jeff for those of us living in the cluster. I’m just waiting for one last fact-check to come back. Thanks for your support!

  2. Pingback: Desegregation and Multiculturalism in the Portland Public Schools: (A History of 1859-1975) By: Ethan Johnson and Felicia Williams | The Jefferson Fluster Club

  3. Pingback: School of Champions Jefferson High | Museum of the City

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.