Portland School Board Greens Fall Short

This item comes to us from the Forecaster:

An initiative by Green Independent Party members of the School Committee to have every child entering kindergarten in 2006 graduate with a college degree by 2023 has been set aside for more evaluation.

By a 5-4 vote, the committee decided to send the initiative to a policy subcommittee for further review. The four Greens on the committee voted as a block against the action.

“It failed,” committee member Stephen Spring said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s disturbing to see partisan politics getting in the way of innovation and positive change, particularly when it has to do with the future of our young people.”

The strategy plan, “Portland at the Crossroads,” had originally been touted as a “Green Initiative,” and was the brainchild of committee members Spring, Ben Meiklejohn and Jason Toothaker, all of whom are members of the Green Independent Party. The fourth Green on the committee, Susan Hopkins, also signed on to the plan when she was elected late last year.

At the Jan.25 meeting, Spring submitted a plan to create a “2023 Task Force” to begin implementation of the initiative, which under Spring’s original plans, had three parts: raising college awareness throughout the community, ensuring that every student has access to a rigorous curriculum and eliminating financial barriers for needy students.

Spring was immediately questioned by fellow board member Otis Thompson about how long the task force would be in existence. Spring said he hoped it would be around for 13 years, following the time-line of a child’s entry into kindergarten to graduation in 12th grade.

Kathleen Casasa, president of the Portland Education Association, questioned the idea of mandating college for every student. “Many students take different paths,” she said.

Casasa expressed concern that setting up a program in such a way would mean “that choosing differently is looked at as failure.” She added that the committee should take the time to contact guidance counselors and school social workers to get “a fuller picture” before creating this task-force.

Spring defended the plan, saying he saw it as a two-pronged effort. The first was ongoing policy work making sure every child is college ready. The second, he said, consisted of “symbolic public work,” to get people in the community who are not stakeholders in the district’s public education system on board with the plan.

Meiklejohn agreed with Spring, saying the initiative “is more of a campaign than a policy,” and cited Kalamazoo, Mich. as a model. Last year, that city announced plans to pay tuition for any city public school graduate who attends a Michigan college. “That’s the kind of forward thinking that this community could use,” he said.

Thompson then moved that the initiative go to the policy subcommittee for review. At a meeting on Dec. 7, Thompson had criticized the Greens’ plan, not necessarily for its content, but for the partisan manner in which it had been brought before the committee. By meeting privately and presenting this as a politically oriented initiative, Thompson said at that time that the Greens had conceivably violated the rules regarding public governing bodies.

The policy subcommittee is made up of School Committee members Jon Radtke, Lori Gramlich and Hopkins. Reached after the meeting, Radtke, chairman of the subcommittee, said the panel is currently revamping the district’s policy manual. He said they would probably take on the Green initiative after they had finished that work. He also said it made sense that it should initially go to his subcommittee.

“Significant elements (of the plan) are parallel to if not already in place as current policy,” Radtke said.

He said he personally had no issue with the basic concept of the Green’s plan. “High school is no longer the end of the road,” Radtke said, adding that post-secondary education could take a variety of forms, including military service.

“Do I think that every person should do four years of college and major in philosophy?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

School Committee Chairwoman Ellen Alcorn disagreed with Spring’s contention that partisanship was involved and she maintained that post-secondary education is a priority of the entire committee.

“It’s not as if half of the board doesn’t think that it’s a concern,” she said. She added that she believed that the idea would be back before the committee once it had gone through the policy group.

“I think this is simply a situation where we need to slow down to eventually go a little faster,” Alcorn said.

Spring is skeptical.

“The idea of having a task force that gets the community psyched,” he said, “that kind of thing is impossible to create in a policy.”

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