EDITORIAL: More summer homework for Portland Public Schools

·2 min read

Aug. 6—Who'd be a middle schooler? A three-year sentence of unparalleled physical and psychic flux, self-doubt and self-discovery; the wrench of exiting childhood and the commencement of a dicey phase decidedly in between.

Who'd be a middle schooler in 2022? Where, against the backdrop of the more classical burdens of the age, the mere act of school-going is weighed down by relentless sparring over the ins and outs of what the nation has resorted to referring to as "education's culture wars": disputes over pronoun use, sex education and, somehow, the teaching of American history. That's before getting into the unquantifiable damage inflicted by a once-in-a-century pandemic. Nor the sickening dread of gun violence, as sustained as clockwork.

And who'd be a middle schooler in 2022 and in the minority? A transgender student? A non-native English speaker? A student of color in a predominantly white school? If you dare, take all of the above, most of which affects this group disproportionately to begin with, and add to it.

We learned this week that both Black and English language learning students in our city's middle schools again faced more discipline than their counterparts last year. What's more, the number of suspensions in the 2021-2022 school year was at its highest level in five years — although the school district's student population continues to decline.

Remember that protesting middle schoolers at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools marched out of class last May to draw attention to what's been characterized as a "culture of tolerance" toward racism and sexism. The event was, by all accounts, imperfectly coordinated and communicated. These things are. It was also courageous and rare and insisted on a response — one very gradually forthcoming.

Using school suspensions or other statistics as tidy units with which to interrogate inequitable and disparate treatment of students falls short. We know discrimination tends to pervade in ways so subtle we often call them "micro" or, if they prove hard to articulate, "vague." In middle school, you can bet it's all pretty hard to articulate. Not that it's stopped Portland students from trying.

Outgoing Superintendent Xavier Botana has said the students' allegations are not new, that they were consistent with surveys conducted over time. Botana has previously expressed interest in using school board contingency funds to support the response to the students' protests. The school district said this week it would work to "prioritize strengthening relationships, increase social-emotional learning instruction, look for alternatives to punitive discipline and continue to monitor and share discipline data."

That's a start. A dedicated, time-consuming and probably costly process is what's required.