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Hillsdale Schools: New Year, New Normal

[Posted October 22, 2021]

Students returned to Portland Public Schools at the end of August for the first year of in-person learning since the Covid shutdown closed doors in March of 2020. The Hillsdale News sat down with the principals of Rieke Elementary, Gray Middle, and Wells High for an overview of the year so far.

Each school has had fewer than 10 Covid cases since the start of the school year, with no quarantines necessary. Most students at Wells are vaccinated, and PPS staff were required to be vaccinated as of October 18. Also effective October 18, all visitors to PPS campuses are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. This applies to sporting events, both indoor and outdoor.

Free weekly Covid testing is available in schools through a program operated by OHSU under a contract with the Oregon Health Authority. Participation is optional. Students pick up a testing kit at school, perform the test at home, then drop their sample in a secure collection bin at the school. Samples are analyzed by OHSU and results are sent directly to the family. A separate testing program is available for staff.

Instruction is in-person, and masks are required. Students in all grades, all the way down to kindergarteners at Rieke, are regularly eating their lunches outside. Weather is a complicating factor and eating outside will get more difficult as temperatures drop. Back-to-school nights and parent-teacher meetings are virtual, but administrators say this year is looking more like two years ago than last year. Wells principal Hristić is optimistic that the school year will continue as planned, barring any unexpected Covid developments.

Enrollment is up by around 100 students at Wells, down by 50-60 students each at Gray and Rieke. Principals at Gray and Rieke surmise that Fall enrollment was impacted by by the introduction last summer of the district's Online Learning Academy (OLA), a distance learning program currently with a waitlist. Rieke principal Jon Jeans also points out that parents have many private school options in the area for kindergarten and first grade.

As Covid vaccinations are approved for younger children and the Fall OLA term is complete, Lisa Newlyn, principal at Gray, and Jeans expect to see enrollment increase.

School bus transportation continues to be a source of frustration at the elementary and middle school levels. A bus driver shortage has led to chaos many mornings, with buses routinely arriving late, early, or not running at all, and the recent staff vaccination deadline is not expected to improve the situation.

Ida B. Wells High School: Students are "Back in Full Force"

Instruction is 100% in-person and students are doing a great job wearing masks and staying socially distant, reports Filip Hristić.

Sports and clubs have resumed, although assemblies, live music and theatre performances are still on hold. “There’s great stuff happening inside the building, and unfortunately we’re not able to showcase it,” says Hristić. Covid has closed the facility to most visitors, but here are a few glimpses of what's going on inside, including a new mural by Portland artist Jeremy Okai Davis:

Clockwise from top left: student artwork on display; new school branding, a poster advertises Sprit Week themes; more new branding outside the College and Career Center; two panels from a recently-installed mural by Portland portrait painter Jeremy Okai Davis.

Some changes visible outside of the building are banners and new athletics uniforms, redesigned to accommodate the school's new identity as Ida B. Wells High School, and the conversion of the two outdoor tennis courts into six pickleball courts.

Clockwise from upper left: pickleball courts, new banners, new athletic uniforms (sports photos courtesy of Elena Miller).

A new student online magazine, The Headlight, pursues the goal of honoring "journalist Ida B. Wells’ legacy by reporting on important news in marginalized and oppressed communities," while also covering school news and topics of interest to Wells students.

Robert Gray Middle School

RGMS Principal Lisa Newlyn says, "It hasn’t been easy to make the transition back to in-person school after the year we had, but we are joyful to be back together." Newlyn, herself an alum of RGMS, was appointed to her post during the online learning era of the pandemic. This Fall was her first opportunity to be back in the building with students and staff.

Many programs that were put on hold during last year's switch to distance learning are back to engage students and supplement the classroom curriculum.

SUN school, a Multnomah County program that operates at designated PPS schools, is about to re-launch at Gray, with programs at lunch and after school. Lego Robotics and Drama Club are active, as are GSA and LatinX lunch-time affinity groups. A Jewish Student Union will start meeting soon as part of SUN school. The Leadership class has drafted a school constitution which has been ratified by a vote of the general school population.

This Fall, in a move to keep the program going during the pandemic, Outdoor School is being held on school campuses, including Gray. The 3-day curriculum is similar to that in years past, without the overnight component.

The "Makerspace" at RGMS SUN School; students eat their lunch outside.

Rieke Elementary School: "Chaotic but safe.”

Enrollment was strong when Jon Jeans took up residence as Rieke principal three years ago, but fell by around 10% once Covid hit and instruction went online. There are currently 325 students enrolled, with three classes of kindergarteners and three of first-graders and two each for grades 2-5. There are no blended classrooms. Two portables hold three classrooms as well as office space.

Jeans would like to see enrollment grow to about 380, which would allow for three full classes at each grade level. He points out that, somewhat counter-intuitively, higher enrollment would result in lower classes sizes, as it would spread the students out over more classrooms.

The enrollment downturn was soon followed by decreased enrollment-based state funding accompanied by a steep drop-off in Foundation funds, money contributed by parents and the community to pay for supplemental staffing positions. While the building is now fully staffed in terms of teachers, administrators, secretaries, and custodians, there are only two half-time staff positions to provide classroom and recess support and a complete shut-down of parent volunteers in classrooms. Teachers are managing full classrooms without the support of the usual complement of paraprofessionals (provided through the PPS special education department) or educational assistants (often funded with money raised through parent and community contributions).

Jeans says staff are seriously outnumbered when there are no volunteers and few support positions to help with lunch and recess, even more so with the complex logistics for physical distancing required by Covid.

Painted symbols on the ground outside indicate where children must sit during lunch (yellow for first graders, blue for kindergarteners), and staggered lunch times ensure that there is enough space for distancing. The covered play area is used for lunch on rainy days, and 70 stools provide a place to sit when the ground is wet. More adult bodies would help in the wrangling to follow distancing requirements, notes Jeans. Lunch has been held outside every day so far this school year, and is the only time during the day the students are allowed to take their masks off.

Lunchtime recess at Rieke. With reduced funds and fewer opportunities for adult volunteers, the composting program (lower left photo) has been drastically reduced. Before the pandemic, all food scraps, food trays and milk cartons were composted as part of a sustainability initiative.

The courtyard ground mural was designed and painted by Rieke students three years ago, in a collaboration with Portland muralist Jon Stommel. Students are currently working on designs for new hopscotch and foursquare games to be painted on the recently refreshed surface of the covered play structure.

Parking lot and drainage improvements have finally been completed after months of delays and the wooden deck between the portables replaced. Planned work to replace the roof has been postponed until next summer due to pandemic-related logistical and cost issues. And following district-wide concerns over lead in drinking water supplies, some water fountains are still out of commission pending replacement.

The facilities look good, with newer play equipment outside and a new surface for the under-cover play area provided by the PTA, and no signs of the graffiti problem that plagued much of the neighborhood over the past year and a half. Jeans says graffiti and vandalism were terrible during the time when no one was on campus; now that the building is occupied again the situation is much improved.

Jeans describes Rieke as “a model of instructional excellence, following the principles of the Rieke Way: ‘Safe and responsible, respectful and kind’,” with the emphasis on “kind,” he adds. “The staff is excellent and feels very supported by Rieke families. The most important support we could get from the Hillsdale community is to continue to tell friends and neighbors that Rieke is a great school.” With higher enrollment, Jeans says, the school will be even stronger.

Jeans reminds us kids don't learn as much in quarantine, and that right now, everyone’s goal should be to keep kids in school.

--Valeurie Friedman


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