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Don't gut Benson's valuable training programs

MyView: Portland schools need to put funds into job skills, not charters


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland Public High Schools are coping with new changes this year. Benson High School senior Phuong Tran works in the school's new technology multimedia lab, newly equipped thanks to a $172,000 grant sought by teacher Cathy Skatch. Despite fewer students, teachers and programs this year, the Benson community is determined to stay on track and continue to make large gains.Benson Polytechnic’s successful program will suffer deeper cuts if Portland Public Schools approves another charter school on Nov. 26.

Benson trains students for middle-class jobs in high-demand fields, yet PPS has halved Benson to 850 students to keep students at Jefferson, Madison and Roosevelt.

Benson needs to build back toward 1,400-plus students to be able to offer full programs, given a projected fiscal cliff and spiking costs.

PPS should deny the READY vocational-technical charter application and stop restricting transfers to Benson.

Benson’s 81 percent graduation rate is second only to Lincoln High School, though many Benson students are economically disadvantaged, and it is the only high school to graduate more black and Hispanic than white students. Yet this year, PPS cut engineering, computer technology and health technology programs and turned away 200 applicants to keep numbers up at schools ranked in bottom 5 percent of academic performance statewide.

Businesses such as Precision Castparts, Gunderson, Tice Industries and Blount International want to work with Benson students and offer paid apprenticeships. As PPS starves Benson, advanced manufacturers such as Vigor Industrial and Gunderson have had to create their own welding training programs due to a lack of skilled workforce in high-demand fields that pay $45,000 per year.

Benson should be an economic development tool in partnership with our business community with focus in target job creation clusters. Advanced manufacturing jobs pay more and offer economic equity.

The 2011 Oregon Business plan rates strengthening K-12 education in technology, high-tech, manufacturing and software as extremely important, yet PPS is gutting the very programs that drive our economic engine.

Wrong charter moves

Businesses want to support Benson, but PPS is redirecting them to Jefferson High School through a partnership with Self Enhancement Inc. Only 32 lottery applicants applied to Jefferson in 2012, compared to 400 applicants to Benson.

PPS can’t afford to operate all nine high schools with full educational programs. If PPS next rebuilds Jefferson (415 students) or Madison, which it appears to be planning, Benson will not have the students, teachers or resources to offer full programs.

PPS should not approve another charter school when it can’t afford to operate existing schools with core curriculum. Charter schools have not proven to be successful on a large scale, are rife with financial mismanagement and siphon students and resources from public schools. Studies show one-third of charter schools do worse than public schools and only 17 percent do better.

Strong public schools are vital to democracy, and the push from the top for charter schools is troubling.

While PPS pours money into the achievement gap with limited results, the skills gap continues to grow. The achievement gap is largely a poverty issue. Programs like Benson provide students a career pathway out of poverty and support business to grow our revenue base and generate more money for social services.

Advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education is critical to an economic turnaround. For example, Germany has kept manufacturing jobs and brought unemployment down to an astonishing 20-year low in the midst of a global recession by focusing on technical education and apprenticeship programs.

Benson’s demise speaks to a larger leadership vacuum when it comes to aligning education with job creation. Leaders talk about Cradle-to-Career, but have failed to take meaningful action when presented with a strategic plan for linking K-12, career technical education, higher education and economic development.

PPS should reinvest in Benson’s historically successful program, not in drop-out factories.

Lainie Block Wilker is an attorney, Portland Public Schools parent and education advocate. She also is a founder of Smart Schools PDX.