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Choosing a neighborhood, Part II: Schools in the Inner City

About a year ago, we started talking about one mama's dilemma about choosing a neighborhood and whether she ought to consider moving to an "established" school district.  We have recently received an email from an urbanMama who wants to continue the conversation: 

I know I have plenty of time, my son won't be going to kindergarten until Fall 2010 but I've started to research schools in Portland because we're finally shopping for a house.  Yay!  Everyone seems to be pointing me in the direction of the westside or magnet/transfer option schools. Do I have to move to a suburb or apply for the risky transfer option in order to get into a good school?  I love the close proximity of everything in NE and SE but I don't want to trade my son's education for a cool, hip neighborhood.  But on the other hand, I'm not sure if I could handle living in the SW suburbs.  What are your experiences with schools in the inner city versus those of you living in SW Portland and beyond?

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We live in inner NE (just off Broadway) and LOVE it. We chose this area specifically for Beverly Cleary School (although we would have settled for several others in the vicinity). We have a real neighborhood; all my son's friends live relatively nearby because it is a neighborhood school. My husband and I both work in the Lloyd District so we are never far away from the kiddos. There are great preschools for our 4 year old too. Wouldn't trade it for the 'burbs!

We live in inner southeast (in the 30s between Hawthorne and Division), and from all accounts, our neighborhood school (Abernethy) is great - and it certainly seemed great when we toured. We ended up opting for the Japanese immersion program at Richmond for our daughter, and we were lucky enough to get in. When we bought our house about 18 months ago, we chose the neighborhood because it was close-in and had a great neighborhood school. We always planned to apply for Richmond for our daughter, but knew there were no guarantees. Being in this neighborhood, I felt like we would be okay either way. So far, so good. We ended up in a vibrant, fun neighborhood with lots to walk to, very easy commutes into downtown, AND two great schools less than a mile from our house.

We moved from N to SE for Abernethy. Its a terrific school. We couldn't be happier with the school, staff and community. Great garden and scratch lunch program, you should visit. And Richmond, Winterhaven and Buckman are all very close just in case you want/need something a little different.

This dilemma confronts me daily! Our family lives in a highly sought after NE elementary school district. When my daughter was two we moved into a house that is way, way too small for our needs just so that we could ensure a good school for her. It's all we could afford. While we love the school we don't feel like we fit the demographic of upper-middle class parents in this district (we do from an educational standpoint but not from a financial perspective as we have choosen career fields that are not highly renumerative). My daughter has play dates at houses that are three to four times the size of ours and comes home questioning why we don't have this material thing or the other. We really want her to understand that there is far, far more to life than material things but we daily question if we have made the right choice for her and us by choosing to surround her with friends who are generally so, so much better off than us financially. She is getting a great education but I do worry about the social impact of her being the only kid that I know of who is dressed in clothes from Goodwill in her class when other kids are dressed in the latest from Hannah Anderson etc. Also, the vacations to Disney are starting to crop up and there is just no way we can afford big-ticket items like these nor do we have the desire to ever go there with her as Disney just doesn't reflect our values (casting no aspersions on anyone here - it's just not us!) Often, I think we should just move to a school district that is just more reflective of who we are but I don't quite know if this school even exists! I can't handle the idea of the 'burbs as we HATE to drive everywhere so that just doesn't seem to be a valid option for us. I'll be interested to read other responses to this posting.

We've just been involved in all of this school "fuss," which is about as nice of a word I can use to describe the craziness that has surrounded us the past two months trying to figure out which school is "good" and which is not. Hopefully I won't sound too cynical, because I really, really am feeling that way right now. I just don't think moving anywhere guarantees anything, frankly. One of the "good" schools in my neighborhood has classes that are packed and only one 15 minute recess/day for kindergartners. Why is that on the "good" list, exactly? I'm guessing it has to do with race and test scores, but that probably is just my cynicism coming out because thinking that kindergartners only need 15 minutes/day outside makes a school pretty sucky, in my opinion. Other schools are on the "good" list, but cost you $350/month to attend next year because you have to pay for kindergarten because there really isn't a half day there, but the district can't see fit to pay for the full day. I just don't get it. Districts other than Portland may be in better shape, but PPS is a mess right now and it's nutty. So, I'm sticking with the fact that we love where we live. We can walk or bike to everything we need, we have friends nearby, parks, easy access to the freeway when we drive. And I've become a strong believer in the concept that any school is only as good as the people who put effort into it. I guess that's about me, where ever I live.

Last year we lived in NW and had to move because there was no way we could afford Kindergarden at Chapman. We ended up needing to move to the suburbs even though work and school is in the heart of the city for us. We regret that we made this change now because we miss the city like crazy and spend so much time riding max. We are moving back to the city this summer and looking for a home at the moment. I wish I had found a way to pay the tuiton now because my daughter has been in part day kindergarden this year and I fear she will be very behind next year due to this. Portland really needs to get with the program!

I just wanted to chime in after reading about Anon's experience with socio-economic differences at her daughter's school.

My parents specifically chose a public elementary school for me and my brother because of the cultural, financial, social, and racial diversity we would experience there. Then they made sure to be very involved at the school (my mom championed an after-school art program, partnered with the local art museum, that is still going 27 years later).

I'm really glad that I grew up in that neighborhood, and in those schools. The teachers were so dedicated, and it was not white-washed. I say, if you love the city, look for a school that has the least overcrowding problem and solid teachers. But don't end up in Anon's situation where you feel out-monied ... schools mold our kids in ways that go far beyond the books ... it's their social upbringing -- and awareness -- at stake as well!

Abernethy is a terrific school w/ boundaries from river to se 39th, hawthorne to division or powell (check their map). If you lived within those boundaries, you'll have a great n'hood + n'hood school. You should tour the school soon!

Even if you're neighborhood school is "good" with regards to testing (this is what the grade system/reputation is based on), it doesn't mean it's the right place for your child as an individual. The neighborhood schools are all handling the budget crisis in different ways as well, it's worth getting a feel for what the short/long term plans are for those schools. (class size, "extras" like art,music etc...) Look for a neighborhood that has a decent foundation in their elementary school but not too far from the focus options. these focus options are lottery, so even if you live close by, it doesn't mean you're child will get a spot.

regarding the burbs, if you don't see yourself living there, really consider what you're giving up to get into the local schools there. Of course our children and their education is our first priority but there's a lot of education they receive from their community as well. There are a lot of options within the Portland system so I would definitely think twice before moving out of it based on the schools.

There are some people who do have the option to do private school but maintain their community ties in the neighborhood. While the sense I've gotten from this website over the years is very anti-private school, there are some great options out there for children who may not be a good fit for any of the "great" neighborhood schools and regardless of your SES, lots of them have great scholarship options and the communities are low key/not status focused but rather child focused. worth looking into to be as open-minded and thorough as possible, it is our children's future after all.

I think there is sometimes the misconception that the suburbs are void of the diversity we associate with Portland. While I do live in NE Portland, I taught for many years in the Beaverton School District and know that the student population there is quite varied. In fact, Beaverton has a larger percentage of English Language Learners (14%) than Portland (10%). While it is true that suburban neighborhoods are not as conducive to walking, local shops etc., the district has a lot of other things to offer. So I guess my point is similar to previous posters- visit a variety of schools in the areas you are considering. They may be much different than you anticipated.

Re: half day kindergarten

Just a PSA that any parent can send their child to half-day kindergarten if they want to, regardless of whether most kids in the school go full day. Full day is an option (I realize it's not an option for parents who work outside the home or who need it for other reasons). But my point is, if you want your kid in half day, they can't make you pay for full. So don't let that keep you away from a school you like.

(My son is one of just 6 kids in his class who leaves at half day. I am not worried at all about how he will do next year in first grade.)

I would like to chime in in agreement about half day kindy. My DD went to half day last year and is doing fine in her first grade class this year. If you have a great neighborhood school otherwise, don't let that keep you away.

Zinemama, there are some schools that are open to picking the child up at lunch, and some that are not. I've gotten some pretty clear messages from some of the schools we've been visiting that half-day is really not an option. We are actually choosing a school that is open to it, but given that it's lottery we may not be able to go. My neighborhood school is very clearly a full day. It's free, but that doesn't matter much when I really want a half-day for reasons other than finances, although that figures in as well. I'm very curious about how your son handles missing half the school day, because I'm worried about doing that. My concern is about having mine singled out, or feeling like I'm keeping him from the fun things the rest of the class is doing, when I really think the half day would be better for him. Can you offer any suggestions or reassurance for me?

I don't know if this is the place to rant about this or not, but this whole half day/full day thing has me really angry. The fact that I would have to pay for my child to attend a public school kindergarten just makes me crazy. For the same price, I could send him to the school at my church. It's not even a token amount you have to pay. It's really substantial. It's taken alot of schools off of the table for us because we just can't afford it. It seems that PPS has just decided this is a great way to fund full-day kingergarten because true half-day programs just don't seem to exist anymore. I could be wrong, but every "half-day" option I've seen is simply picking your child up early. That is just wrong. And the fact that the majority of folks out there thinks this is okay, I don't understand. In my head, it's like paying for tv so people can advertise to me. Somehow or another we've convinced ourselves that it really is okay to do this because we "need" it. If we really need full-day kindergarten, then why aren't we demanding that the school district pay for it? If they can't afford it, then they shouldn't be offering it. And if it really is a choice, then every school should have a real full-day class and a real half-day class, where the whole class arrives together and leaves together and no one is made to feel different or to wear a scarlet dollar-sign on their back.

Okay, rant over. I'm sorry if I have offended, I really don't intend to. I'm so angry, and it's all so fresh right now, having just spent time looking for kindergarten next year. If anyone can help me gain perspective, I would love it.

kindergarten rant, leaving half day really hasn't been an issue for my son. He's an active little guy and I think a full day would be too much for him at this point. (More to the point, if I had $300/month to spend on full day k anyway, I'd be putting it in his college fund and still sending him to half.)

He has a good time at school, but he's always happy to come home. The class sings a really sweet goodbye song to the "morning friends" as they leave, and there just isn't any stigma attached. No scarlet dollar sign on anyone. Heck, his kindergarten teacher's son goes half day!

Also, anything "academic" (not that I think much academics belong in kindergarten, but that's a whole 'nother issue) takes place in the morning, so what he "misses" in the afternoon is naptime, recess, some art and stories. All of which he can get at home with me.

Back when we started at this school (Sunnyside) with my older son, there was a half day class and a full day. Even in the full day, some parents took their kids home at lunch (because they hadn't gotten into the half day class). Again, not a problem.

I agree with all your points. It is a crazy situation.

My family moved here from Denver two years ago and heard all kinds of negativity about PPS. We moved into the Sunnyside Elementary neighborhood in SE but chose to send our daughter to Richmond (Japanese Immersion). There are so many options available for families re: public education in this town. I looked at many neighborhood schools (all on the east side) which offered a wonderful curriculum. The free public education choices here parallel some pricey options in other cities.

Just another note about SW. We moved last year from NE to SW and love it. We are actually closer to downtown and the "hip" east side is just a hop over the river, about 8 minutes in the car. We can walk to a variety of restaurants, the market, the video store and several parks. Just because you're in SW doesn't mean you're stuck in the 'burbs. There seems to be a bias on UM against the west side, but we like it just great. And, our neighborhood school is 3 blocks away. Can't beat it.

That sounds really nice, Zinemama. I hope I'm as lucky as you to find a school that will be like that for my son. I absolutely believe half-day is the best for him, for similar reasons as you identify. Way too much energy for all day! I looked at the PPS transfer site and saw that Sunnyside only lists full day for the transfer options. That's part of my frustration with this whole thing. The schools I looked at that said full-day all gave me pretty clear "no half-day" messages. Had I known there was a cohort of kids doing half-day there, I would totally have considered the school even though I really want to stay in my neighborhood. Like I said, one of my choices is "half-day friendly," so I can always hope!

Full disclosure: I've been working with several of the K-5/K-8 schools within PPS to help them do parent outreach. So when I saw the headline for this post, I was bracing for whatever might come . . . but I'm really impressed with how heartfelt the comments are.

Every parent wants the best for her kid. And it's scary to turn your 5 year-old over to a building full of strangers. Who wouldn't want a guarantee that if you just choose THE right school, everything will be perfect?

But as Anon's post reminds us, there is no perfect school. Kids learn all sorts of lesson from their peers, whether those are the lessons we're hoping for or not. So the real question is what can parents do to make a good choice - without falling into the belief that there's a perfect option.

First of all, don't confuse scarcity with superiority. Yes, there are focus option programs that you can lottery into; they are good at telling their stories because they have to attract students. But that doesn't mean they are always the best choice for your child.

Neighborhood schools have "comprehensive" programs, which means they cover all the subjects, but each school also has its own personality. Want to see some great student art? Grout's entryway is a showplace for what kids there are doing. Humboldt is breaking ground on its hands-on learning garden this spring. Classes at Boise-Eliot do community art projects. The list goes on and on-- and that's just the schools I know about first hand; I know other schools have great programs that I'm ignorant of, because I haven't worked with them.

Neighborhood schools let kids learn with the same group of peers from preK/K through 12th grade, so families get to know each other. Kids can walk/bike to school more easily, so they're healthier. And when you don't have to transport your kid out of neighborhood to school, you have more time to do other things with your child, inside or outside of school. Just because within PPS your child is guaranteed a space in the neighborhood school (which is NOT the case in every city) does not make this a "fallback" option. It makes it a great resource.

So how to decide? The best thing you can do is VISIT a school. Most schools have tours through the spring, so call your neighborhood school, and any other school you're thinking about. PPS has a handout http://www.pps.k12.or.us/schools-c/docs/e_rsc_getting_connected.pdf with questions you might want to ask during your visit. While you're there, ask about what events your family can attend - student performances, family learning nights, etc. The school should welcome your presence, and you will learn more the more you go. Plus, it's nice for kids if they've been to events at the school before they enroll, because then that big building full of strangers isn't a big building full of strangers any more.

Over 84% of kids who live within PPS boundaries go to public school. That's way higher than other cities (70% in Seattle, 77% in Minneapolis). The focus option programs are only a small piece of that. But I've heard parents say that sometimes their own friends make them feel like if they aren't "shopping around" they aren't being good parents. That pressure can be tough to buck, but these parents also found that their neighborhood school was right for their kids (and often the people who were saying negative things didn't really know much about the particular school). Have I mentioned you should visit, visit, visit and see first hand?

BTW, about paying for full day kinder: the reason for this is simple, though I agree it's frustrating. Oregon doesn't fund full day kinder (how I wish it would). Some schools get Title I funds, which are extra federal dollars, to help ensure early school success; among other things, these dollars get used for free full day kinder for qualifying kids. The district realizes that many other parents want full day kinder too, and so they offer it as fee for service. It's less money than many preschools, though not all. If you want this to change, be LOUD to the legislature about our willingness to raise taxes to fund education better. And not just the year your kid is headed to kinder; we need to value public education even when it's not directly serving us.

This may not be a good time to ask this question, since many of us are waiting to hear back on lottery and charter school admissions. :) I will say the whole Kindergarden process here is extremely painful if you don't have a decent school to fall back on. When we bought our house in NoPo, there were 2 decent schools nearby, both of which were closed in the last few years. Our "new" neighborhood school, while they seem to be trying very hard to create a good school, has a number of intrinsic issues that make it not an option for my family.

If I had it to do over again, I think I would have moved closer to the elementary school, so the winds of change at PPS would do less damage (assuming they don't outright close anymore schools). If the lottery/charter options do not pan out for us, we are looking at moving into Beverly Cleary or Llewellyn areas so our kids can be on a long term path of good schools, and we won't have to do the stupid lottery again at 6th and 9th grades.

We have lived in NE (Irvington area--great schools), My sister in law lives in Overlook (N pdx) and loves their elementary and we now live in SW Portland Hillsdale/Burlingame in what I consider a hip area (it is on the westside) and I Love the schools. I think you can find a good public school throughout PDX wherever you choose to live. However do not count on the lottery as I have heard that it typically does not work out for those who apply. Good Luck!

We have a wonderful n'hood school that I really love (Abernethy, again) a few blocks from our house. I spent my son's baby and preschool years looking forward to walking him there in the mornings, chatting with other parents, coffee in hand, after drop-off, and then heading to work. My personal needs and values all revolve about community, both for me and for my child.

However, as kindergarten time came closer, it became apparent that our neighborhood school would not work for my child's particular needs. I spent time at the school and talked with the principal. It was just a singular non-fit. We did not manage to lottery into the public/charter/magnet schools that we thought could work for him.

We are fortunate in that we can afford private school, and found a wonderful fit for our boy for elementary school (Childpeace Montessori). However, I remain saddened daily that we are not part of our more local community, and that our daily routine involves getting in the car twice daily and driving out of our walk-to-everything neighborhood. My son doesn't know many local kids. I don't get to become close with neighboring families of his classmates. His friends from school live all over the city, and playdates are rare. That's hard, and I'm sad about it a lot. But it's more important that we could find him what he specifically needed in order to grow and thrive best, and I'm working on letting the other stuff go. (We just joined our n'hood T-ball league, and have already met other families in our area to be friends with--hope it helps!).

Suzanne,

If you don't mind sharing, I'm wondering why the school didn't fit your son's needs? I don't want to pry, I am just intrigued by your story because I can see myself heading down your same road. My son is not yet 2 yrs, but we also live very close to a n'hood school that seems to be great, and that I am excited about enrolling him in when the time comes. Yet, I also think about his personality (highly active, exploratory, gregarious, and a bit class clown-like) and I wonder if the NCLB-induced environment is going to fit him. Of course, that all could change quite a bit in the next three years. But anyway, if you don't mind, I am curious to hear more of your story.

What great comments! My experience is similar to so many here. We feel very blessed to have purchased a home that is within walking distance (a few blocks) of Beverly Cleary (including the old Hollyrood K-1 school) and Grant High. Our kids will walk to school from Kindergarten through Senior year (that's an assumption, I realize, based on whether school closures are on the horizon). We feel that these schools have the best of many worlds - academics, parent involvement, diversity, etc...

The downside is the cost of real estate in the area. But if you can afford a reasonably-sized house in this neighborhood (or one of the others mentioned) it sure solves a lot of problems (plus it's an investment). We walk everywhere - from the school to the grocery store to the library...

One note - re: other families having lots of money and feeling like you don't fit in. I know that there are many families like that in this neighborhood but it's not really one of conspicuous consumption. If they have money, it's not really flaunted. It's been my experience, for the most part, that most of the city families are pretty laid back and not into keeping up with the Joneses...

just my two cents!

Thank you SC and swmama for weighing in on the SW region and "the burbs". I definitely feel an anti west-side mentality on this board and it's a little offensive. I do think that the eastside has a lot of GREAT things to offer but some of us have jobs that would make living on the eastside a nightmare. My husband is in the tech field and the vast majority of those jobs are on the westside. So while I would love to have more amenities in walking distance it would cost more in gas to live on the eastside and commute to the westside than it does to do a bit more driving to shuttle to the places that aren't in walking distance on the westside. Not to mention time away from home doing a hideous commute across the river. So, back on topic, have any of you who are concerned about optimal schools considered private school as an option? We send our oldest to a private school and their curriculum includes a lot more extras that the public schools don't offer.

Speaking of private schools, does anyone have any opinions on the Waldorf School in Milwaukie? We live near there and are thinking of it as an option for my kids when they start school in a couple of years.

Genevieve -
My children go to the Portland Waldorf School in Milwaukie. (Thanks to family tuition assistance, we've been lucky enough to be there for 7 years.) We adore the Waldorf School! It has given our children and our family the most amazing gifts, far beyond our expectations. The combo of engaging academics with plentiful arts and movement/outdoor playtime provides an invigorating balance my kids thrive upon. They love to go to school every day. The PWS community is a wonderful melding of folks from many diverse walks of life (wearing both Goodwill and Hanna A.) who share similar values at heart.

We are still just as connected to our beloved SE neighborhood and our incredible neighbors - yet now we know other lovely folks all over Portland and beyond, thanks to the Waldorf school.

Have fun exploring! I hope you find the right school fit for you family.

I'm glad people are starting to talk more about private schools. For some children these are the best options, regardless of a parents desire to build community and support the local school, it may not be a good fit for their child.

regarding the anti-west side bias: Like everything else that's discussed on this website, I don't think people generally are mean in these threads. I think sometimes people feel the need to justify and validate the decisions they've made for themselves and it can come across as negative. But it's a good reminder that when people write, it's good to be honest but try not to be so judgmental about someone's personal decision, especially when that decision has no bearing on other peoples lives.

Kendra, I second your enthusiasm for Portland Waldorf. It is more accessible (economically) than many people realize and the school really tries to work with families who are attracted to what Waldorf has to offer (arts, music, foreign languages, movement, play, etc.) Milwaukie has a town center that is getting more amenities, too, and with the library across the street, lots of green space, people are often surprised at this little gem (plus it's k-12, so if it is the right fit for your child, you don't have to keep shopping for schools every few years!)

Re choosing homes/hoods/schools -

We relocated from Seattle to PDX last summer and after looking high and low (geographically, financially) bought a home in Woodstock , 2 blocks from Lewis Elementary. Because our kids are 4 & 14, we looked at preK - high school and also considered proximity to food, parks, libraries, and public transportation. So far we're happy. That said, as a parent I've experienced public schools in Boston and Seattle and more recently a private Montessori school (preschool & middle) in Seattle. Get involved. Each child, school, teacher, curriculum is different and there's always something that needs fixing or fine-tuning. Make sure you are comfortable with the (school) community you choose and consider how far you want to walk or drive each day. I could go on... Instead, I'll share an exam essay quote assigned to me as a student in Australia in 1983. "School was an interruption to my education." (Oscar Wilde, I think!)

Best of luck selecting a school - you'll do fine. There are so many choices, and PDX is a good city full of engaged, concerned citizens and parents. We're very fortunate.

:-)

I know I mention this all the time, but I think it always merits this discussion. Do we as mamas have any responsibility for trying to make the schools that we deem unacceptable for our children.. .better?

Is it okay for your neighbor's kid to have not enough recess and not very many "specials" like art, music or hell, even P.E.? Our kids have to share a city and a world with those kids, do we want them to be all that they can/want to be, also?

As a broke a** single WOHmama who has opted out of PPS for high school, I struggle mightly with this one myself. There was not a high school that I was comfortable putting my kid in. We need engaged and supported teachers AND ethnic/economic diversity AND resources (libraries, college counselors, art, music). I didn't see a lot of that going around in one place.

I try to volunteer when I can at PPS and support my neighborhood school. If I had money, I'd buy supplies or something.

GREAT discussion!

I just finished the kindergarten research/visiting/applying process for my daughter.

After hearing so many negative things about PPS, I WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED, time after time, with the schools we visited.

We live in NoPo, our neighborhood school is Humboldt. I was delighted with the teachers, the principal, and the early grades in general. I saw a very high level of commitment and caring among the staff. Also, 95% of the KINDERGARTENERS @ Humboldt hit their "benchmarks" - but many come in not knowing their letters or numbers, or even speaking English very well. THOSE teachers are doing a phenomenal job teaching those kids, with a lot of love.

I agree with earlier comments that it's important to find the right "fit" for your kid. And I feel really fortunate to have so many options within PPS!

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