Parent Trap

Inside Portland's Most Heated Parent Facebook Group

Six years ago, some data geeks with a camera joined forces online to try to make the local school district more transparent and fair. Here’s what happened.

By Margaret Seiler August 15, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

In late 2012, Portland Public Schools was engaged in a process it called Jefferson Cluster Enrollment Balancing. The district wanted to address “enrollment challenges,” with some of the schools feeding into Jefferson High facing underenrollment (and, thus, anemic funding) while others nearby were overcrowded. 

Potential scenarios included closures of schools serving predominantly low-income communities. Parents started comparing notes, questioning the district’s approach. Conversation migrated to Facebook, as things do, and the N/NE PPS Enrollment Balancing discussion group was born.

What was a few data geeks fighting to keep neighborhood schools open is now a 4,000-member, many-headed beast (disclosure: I’m an opinion-filled, four-year member). Some credit the group with pressuring PPS to address longtime inequities, especially in regard to middle schools. Others have criticized it for itself promoting inequity. After a particularly contentious school board election, one moderator even suggested dissolving the group. Conversations can get heated: this spring, a seemingly innocuous post asking what members are thankful for at their neighborhood schools set off anger over not being inclusive of other kinds of schools.

The N/NE PPS Enrollment Balancing group isn’t exactly about enrollment anymore. But it does capture tensions (and hopes) around Portland’s schools. I asked longtime members and current and former moderators about the group, its power, and its problems. Here’s their take.

An oral history 

Gabrielle Mercedes Bolívar (former member/moderator, Jefferson Cluster parent): I think it was an October meeting at Ockley Green, 2012, when a parent, Aaron Smirl, said, “Hey, there’s this group being formed, a way to get information disseminated between all of the schools.”

Aaron Smirl (member, former moderator, Jefferson Cluster parent): Each scenario [presented by PPS] would involve a major change in programming or configuration. Some schools were even going to close. It seemed like a terrible, extreme lack of foresight considering the demographics of the city—the enrollment was gaining, and they were talking about closing schools.... I was involved with the PTA at the time, and it seemed like just a very short look back in history would show you that they had already closed schools in this area, and then you look even wider out you see like, oh, actually, most of the schools that have been closed in PPS have all been up in this area. So you’re saving walkability and community and neighborhood-like schools [only] for a certain area, and other areas are inconvenienced quite a bit.

Jaime Cale (moderator, Roosevelt Cluster parent): I was born and raised in Portland, so I remember the waxing and waning of “Jefferson’s going to close, it’s not going to close” throughout my whole life. 

Bolívar: Literally this happened six months after they had closed Humboldt, and moved that entire school over to Boise-Eliot.

Jeffrey Johnson (member, Jefferson Cluster parent): We didn’t want another North Portland, Jefferson Cluster school to get closed.

Virginia La Forte (member, former school board candidate, private school parent, past and future Grant Cluster parent): The North/Northeast corridor is disproportionately affected by lost buildings. 

Johnson: PPS does a really good job of pitting communities against each other. And that’s kind of how that early Facebook group felt: everybody trying to save themselves. It took a while to evolve into communities working together and trying to get away from that splitting.  

Smirl: [The district was saying] “Well, we’re underfunded and we can’t do this.…” Well, underfunding doesn’t mean you have to close all of the schools up here and none of the ones over there. There was still this privileged class that was being untouched by all this.

Johnson: They were just throwing these crazy ideas up, and in the end they proposed to do what most people at Chief Joseph thought they were going to do anyway and close our school. [In an effort to keep Chief Joseph open, some parents formed the Chief Joseph Bucket Brigade.] The Bucket Brigade was kind of multimedia. There was a Facebook group, there was a website, there was a Twitter account, there was a listserv. We hit it across the board—showing our privilege, basically. We were able to organize, we had people that could put the time into it, without recognizing that some of our sister schools didn’t have that…. Looking back at it, it sure does make us look bad. And so it was hard to overcome that, with our own mistakes…. Trying to protect our school kind of gave the wrong impression to the rest of the communities, because they were separate communities. Now I think of us more as the Jefferson Cluster Community, and that our kids deserve everything that every Alameda kid gets, they deserve everything that every West Sylvan kid gets, and they haven’t gotten it for a long time.

Smirl: There was a core group of parents from different schools, which was important, at least to me. We had groups at each school going, look, let’s not close Woodlawn, let’s not close Vernon.... It was very easy to get people to show up to meetings. For those who couldn’t, people took photos of the physical handouts and distributed them on the internet.

Bolívar: Part of what we wanted to share was data. Several of us, we had different skill sets, taking PPS files and converting them—they always give them to you as PDFs, so converting them to Excel, and then trying to use their data to see, is this really the story? There’s a kid behind each of these numbers.

Smirl: We would be told one thing at the meetings, and then an official version would come up on the district website that was either terribly watered down or sometimes not even what went on. I bought a camera. I would record meetings, put it up on a YouTube channel, and then fire the link to Facebook. People from all over were watching. So it was just like a feeling that, ok, good, it felt like a tool that we could fight—or not fight, well, it felt like fighting to me—that we could present a counternarrative to what the district was saying. 

Rita Moore (member, former moderator, current school board chair): None of this information was coming out of the district. This page started to develop kind of a cadre of people, of wonks, who would discover data, create databases, and provide comparative information the district wasn’t divulging. And for the most part it turned out remarkably accurate. There were a lot of people on it who had been involved for a very long time, so a lot of education going on, a lot of people giving background info, ok, for those of you who are new to this, this is what’s been going on for 10, 15 years, and it was fascinating. The discussions were very solution-oriented. It was a tremendous educational and organizing tool.

Smirl: It was an outlet for people that had that passion. It was like crack.

Johnson: My focus was always about the data, and trying to counteract the narrative the district was trying to shove down the Jefferson community’s throats. 

Smirl: One reason that group or any of those groups springs up: there’s no room for dialogue at a board meeting or on [the district’s] official page. 

Johnson: The N/NE page is a good place to share information, because PPS isn’t going to give it to you, and there’s enough people there now who are wily, and onto what PPS—the old guard of PPS—tried to do. We can kind of call bullshit on it and move forward … and stick up for each other as well. 

Smirl: When they didn’t close a school in North/Northeast, it seemed like it had fulfilled a big role. 

While no school buildings were closed, in 2013 PPS ended Ockley Green’s six-year-old K–5 arts and technology magnet program (which attracted mostly neighborhood students and was under the same roof as the neighborhood middle school) and merged the school with Chief Joseph (at the time a K–5 and the only separate feeder to Ockley Green Middle), with K–3 at Chief Joseph and 4–8 in the much larger Ockley Green building a mile away. CJOG had the added challenge of a dual campus, but issues with K–8s in general would soon surface in the N/NE Facebook group.

Smirl: A really important issue came up that had nothing to do with enrollment [but with class offerings in different areas, and at K–8s vs. middle schools]. It’s easy to be in a bubble and not realize the privileged position you’re in. You look around and say, “Oh, you’ve got robotics and biology, and over here they’ve got
office assistant and cafeteria cleanup.”

Johnson: The first place I ever saw that spreadsheet [compiled by school board member Paul Anthony, a vocal longtime member of the group, comparing offerings at K–8s and middle schools] was on the N/NE page. That’s where the N/NE page is strong enough. It has this critical mass…. If you have something important to share, you post it on there. If you have a big question you post it on there, and there’s people that probably have the answers or have gone through similar experiences, or can give you a lesson on how what you’re complaining about shouldn’t be the priority.

Cale: When you think your grass is dead in your corner, you realize, “Oh, wow, somebody doesn’t even have grass. It could be worse.” So there’s a little bit of “we don’t have it as bad as we thought” or “oh, wow, we have it worse”—but just kind of just knowing what everyone else is doing, that everyone has some issue with PPS.

Moore: You got parents from different school communities talking to each other and learning about what conditions were like in other schools. That’s tremendously significant. Because you only know what you know, and what you know is your own kid’s school, or if you get multiple kids you may know a couple schools, and you think that’s normal, and that page in particular, I think it was a real catalyst to informing people across the district about just stunning disparities of educational experiences for kids from one school to the next. 

Johnson: We showed them all our kids deserve middle schools because this is what they get, and this is what they don’t get when they’re in K–8s. There’s these other things they might get in K–8s if they’re big enough, if they’re in Beverly Cleary in three buildings, if they’re in Faubion in one giant, beautiful, brand-new building. But talk to the students at Vernon, talk to the students at MLK—they’re not getting crap, except shafted. 

In 2016, Ockley Green Middle School reopened, and its feeders that had been K–8s for a decade reverted to elementaries. This fall in North and Northeast, respectively, Harriet Tubman and Roseway Heights (formerly Gregory Heights Middle before it was merged with another school to become a K–8) reopen as middle schools, something long sought by many in the group. Sounds great, right? Still, we’re talking about social media here.

Rashelle Chase (moderator, charter school parent): One of the things about Facebook groups is it’s so easy to be a badass online, to be tough, and be like, “Well, I think this, and you’re an idiot because ... clearly you don’t understand....” But it’s not as easy to do that in person.

Moore: There were a handful of cases where the moderators had to step in and say, “Enough.” Things would start to get pretty heated, and I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for heat, but when it started to get nasty, personally nasty, then one of us would step in and say, “OK, let’s remember we are all on this page because we care about kids.” 

Cale: Unfortunately the posts people remember are the ones that are contentious, but those are probably only 5 to 10 percent of the actual. Most of the time people I hope see others’ points and opinions.

Bolívar: It started out, as all things, well intended. I think there’s some divisiveness that came out of it. That’s one of the challenges with social media.

La Forte: It can be brutal. People don’t know you, but the group can lead to the impression that people know you personally.

Chase: For the most part, even when discussions get heated, people aren’t cussing each other out [which happens in Portland Mamas, which Chase and Cale have also helped moderate]. People in N/NE can be condescending to one another, they’re not always kind to each other, but they’re usually not flat-out disrespectful, so that is helpful.

Cale: I don’t think we’ve ever actually kicked anyone out. We try to have dialogue first.... We also have people leave and come back.… Some do a “flounce and bounce,” but they usually come back.

Bolivar: [As a moderator] work-life balance is challenging. People would get really upset and really impatient and tag you 150 times a day.... I work full time, I parent full time, and I volunteer within my three children’s school communities, and I’m a parent of a special education student, and so at some point you do start to kind of lose your sanity and question. It’s tough.

Smirl: I learned my lesson from the PTA: I like to say shit, and as a moderator it’s not cool to be so opinionated.

One 2017 school board race involved a longtime moderator of the group, Moore, who is white, and former charter school principal Jamila Singleton Munson, who is African American. The election raised tensions on the page, as did influxes of members in the months that followed as conversation heated up around the boundary changes and K–8/K–5 conversions for the new middle schools and the siting of ACCESS, an alternative program for highly gifted students.

The placement of ACCESS had been a factor in Jefferson Cluster balancing in 2012, with various scenarios putting it at Tubman, MLK, Chief Joseph, and/or Ockley Green. (After sharing space for five years at a school becoming a neighborhood K–5 this fall, a split ACCESS is now being housed with Vestal Elementary and Lane Middle.) In 2017 Kairos, a charter school focused on closing the achievement gap for children of color, persuaded the district to extend its one-year lease at Humboldt, which had for years been in the mix as a potential ACCESS space, and a district proposal to relocate a special-needs program called Pioneer to place ACCESS in its building met with strong opposition (and spurred a new Facebook group, Support Pioneer School). 

Cale: The group kind of changed a bit around the time the school board races were happening. We had a person of color running, and one of the other people running [Moore] was a moderator. A lot of people, especially members of color, were asking for more focus on equity. And that election [which Moore won] resulted in a lot of turmoil and chaos in the group. 

Chase: When Jamila Singleton Munson was running for school board, I kind of got a heads-up that there was some active discussion around her candidacy going on over there. I had a child that would be starting in the next year, so it was a little bit early, but it was an interesting way to kind of get a lay of the land for what was going on currently in PPS…. I’m an admin for Portland Mamas, so that was kind of my entrée into that whole world of Facebook group moderating. I don’t know how much this was going on before, but definitely after the school board election there were a lot of conversations happening about equity, and if equity was happening not just in PPS but also in the actual group.

Kate Sage (moderator, Madison Cluster parent): There were a lot of people who didn’t have skills in how to talk about those issues, or were really uncomfortable, so there was somewhat of a divide ... on the page as the page morphed.

Chase: It was pretty clear to me and to a number of other people that the way the group was being run wasn’t with an equity lens or prioritizing equity. I felt strongly that in a city like Portland that has gentrified so much and where people of color don’t feel welcome, and that has such a problem with racism but doesn’t think it does, that a group like the N/NE group really needed to be having conversations with the issue of equity front of mind, and [the election] just really made that super, super clear.

Sage: What’s interesting is that it was an enrollment balancing page. And so even at its inception, there was an idea of equity embedded in that concept. But I don’t think it was as overt.

Smirl: You can’t have a productive conversation about what we need to do, what steps should we take, to even make any one thing better. There’s either this privileged obliviousness or this anger from people who have been underserved. It’s like it’s oil and water.

Bolívar: The page was started with an intent, and it grew significantly. I think when it was first created people were really hellbent on kids attending their neighborhood schools. And over time it morphed, people who had used the choice system, who wanted to defend their use of the choice system and why, for their particular student. 

Cale: Right after the Pioneer and ACCESS thing we had a lot of increase in membership. Pretty much after every big decision there’s a big influx…. It seems like people join when their own community is affected, or their own children might actually be affected.

La Forte: Everything we see in that group, all of the conflict, is rooted in some sort of truth, so it would be wonderful if that could be the focus, not “my kid, my kid, my kid....”

Johnson: [At Chief Joseph in 2012–2013 we] hadn’t really evolved into that understanding of the historical racism going on in the Jefferson Cluster.... We had a hard time putting it in the context of decades of neglect and so we blew it in a lot of ways. We learned a lot by being called out on Facebook and at meetings, and having to reflect and learn from it.

Chase: I think a lot of people are feeling pissed off at times, and I think that means that we are kind of moving the ball down the field in terms of having these conversations and pushing people to think about things in such a way that they might not be comfortable with and kind of challenge their preconceived notions of how things should be…. The conversations around ACCESS and the sort of trifecta of Kairos and then Pioneer and then where they landed, in a low-income-population school are a pretty good example of that. I think people have had to think a lot about the different ways in which children are underserved, and the different issues for different communities, and who has actual access and resources, and who’s listened to and whose concerns were taken seriously.

Cale: It’s been really hard with all the ACCESS stuff to keep the group focused on PPS and equity and inclusion in general, and not just on the current chaotic state of the schools in flux, which was ACCESS [in the 2017–18 school year]. And I think even on our page, as hard as we try, you can tell that there are still parents that have louder voices within in the district. 

Sage: A lot of my energy goes toward being one of the people that’s creating space that’s more comfortable for voices that aren’t usually privileged, sometimes at the expense of voices that have been privileged, and that can be really uncomfortable.

Cale: Recently we’ve added one question for admission. Two, actually. One is how are you affiliated with PPS, and the second one is just posting PPS’s equity statement and saying, do you agree to use this lens in this group? And we’ve had at least five or six people refuse to say yes, and say they don’t understand why they have to answer this question—which is strange.

Johnson: The haves and the have nots in the same district is so blatant, and if people can’t see that, if they refuse to see it, I’m not sure, I can’t help them.

Even with the turmoil, the forum has served as a force for unity and change. 

Bolívar: We have our [new] middle schools [in part thanks to advocacy in the group]—that’s hugely productive—and the fact that we have people from both sides of the river demanding district-wide boundary review, the fact that we have our communities starting to look at what does equity really mean when it pertains to education, what does it really mean when we talk about historically underserved, what does it really mean when we talk about privilege and who has it.

La Forte: The group has evolved in a way that serves a much greater purpose of acknowledging and hopefully addressing issues that are related to racial inequities in our schools. There’s definitely a silver lining there. I think that’s great. But enrollment still isn’t balanced. 

Sage: I think it’s a lot more philosophical in nature now. There’s some information sharing, too, that goes on, especially around equity issues, like, “Hey, does anybody have this flier in Spanish?”

Cale: Even if people argue and don’t agree with one another, I think just hearing each other’s truths are good. 

Bolivar: At least in my communities, specific to Chief Joseph, Ockley Green, and Jefferson, people who were at absolutely opposing odds [when the group first started], that you couldn’t walk in a room without tears or really hurtful words, are friends. And I don’t just mean casual friends, but actually, authentically friends. That’s a huge deal. 

La Forte: There’s a saying, it’s harder to hate up close. I would love it if this group met in person. Every time I meet someone from the group, there’s so much energy and drive.

Smirl: Anyone can say something and get feedback from other people, which is like just exactly the opposite of a board meeting, where you get three minutes to say something, and you have to drive down there, and you have to prepare something, you have to fit that format.

Cale: Some of us smaller schools that aren’t the Sabins and the Irvingtons, and the ACCESS and Beverly Cleary, we still get to say, “Hey, this is happening at my school. I need your support.”

Sage: A lot of board members are on the page, as are a number of members of the media, and so I do think there’s a way in which the page acts as a platform for people in positions of power and who can make change to sort of … get a heads-up about issues that might become problematic for the district and for families.

Chase: The more the board is pushed to really prioritize that equity lens, I would attribute any successes in that regard partially to the group.

Moore: I am hoping that there will come a day that PPS will become so functional and transparent that parents won’t have to have a second or third job discovering info, creating spreadsheets, to discover what was going on, and parents wouldn’t have to spend their lives advocating and going to meetings and getting all exercised about everything. I’m still hopeful. We’re not there yet.  

Sage: I haven’t seen any decisions swayed in ways that I would hope they would be swayed as a result of the page, but I have seen more thoughtful discussions, especially on the part of certain board members, thoughtful discussions on the page where I feel like the issues are being more represented in public forums.

Smirl: What I think the leftover, kind of brown-dwarf, dying-solar-system Facebook group that doesn’t talk about what it’s named or anything is: it’s a force the district needs to consider before making decisions.

Cale: There’s enough drama in PPS to keep us going.

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