Portland Public Schools board approves plan to renovate Jefferson High School

As board members convened for a board meeting Tuesday at Jefferson High School, safety was the top priority for many, including Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. He opened the meeting with a statement about shootings outside of Portland high schools, citing the recent incident at Cleveland High School this week.

“As gunfire shakes another PPS community, I urge our community to come together and work together to solve the social issues plaguing our neighborhoods,” Guerrero said.

Jefferson High School

The Portland School Board approved plans to renovate Jefferson High School on December 13, 2022. The new facility is expected to serve 1,700 students over the coming years.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

In addition to the shootings in Cleveland, there were two shootings near Jefferson that fall. Students were injured in all three incidents.

In a statement shared after the board meeting, county officials outlined steps school administrators typically take in response to security threats. These steps include locking classroom doors when there is a threat outside of a school, locking a school building when there is a threat inside a school, and adding on-campus security personnel if necessary. County officials also said there were plans to add additional indoor and outdoor cameras on all school campuses, using funds from bond voters approved in 2020.

But PPS officials were at North Portland High School Tuesday for a different reason: to approve a plan to modernize the high school.

Jefferson’s modernization plan retains the historic exterior

Tuesday’s unanimous vote moves Jefferson up as the next school to be modernized and the first to be updated with funds from the 2020 bond. The project is now moving into a design phase and then into a construction phase.

The newly renovated Lincoln High School opened this fall, and construction is underway at Benson Polytechnic High School, which includes the district’s Multiple Pathways to Graduation building. Cleveland and Ida B. Wells are next — as the last high schools in Oregon’s largest borough to be renovated since construction began a decade ago.

Jefferson’s modernization plan is the result of a months-long process. The final plan, one of four options, retains the shell of the campus’s original 1909 building, but the architects recommend a complete renovation of the interior.

Other new components include an inner courtyard, a new theater, and new performing arts and sports spaces. The school’s outdoor athletics areas remain, with the addition of a new grandstand and fieldhouse.

Officials say the school plan meets the educational specifications required of comprehensive schools. Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero noted that the school would have additional performing arts space, including a 1,000-seat theater, as well as space to support partnerships with nearby Portland Community College and nonprofit organizations Self Enhancement, Inc. and Latino Network.

“Jefferson High School, as proposed, would be the largest high school campus in our portfolio,” Guerrero said. “The square footage quoted would ensure that the visual and performing arts would have twice the space of a typical high school.”

Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in 2024, with the goal of completing construction by fall 2028.

Students will remain on campus during construction, as was last done with students during the Lincoln High project.

The estimated cost of the project is $366 million. This includes the $311 million originally outlined in the 2020 bond offering, as well as contingent costs.

Marina Creswell, PPS senior director for the Office of School Modernization, said the project’s long schedule meant costs could change. By the time construction begins in 2024, five years will have passed since the start of initial planning in 2019.

“That time span — you’re going to have price volatility with or without a pandemic,” Creswell said.

“Even during the construction phase, the costs will fluctuate.”

Cresswell added that the recent McDaniel project was under budget and also anticipated that the Lincoln renovation might happen.

Jefferson High School’s size and safety among concerns for the future

About 600 students are currently enrolled in Jefferson, the district’s smallest comprehensive high school. The newly modernized Jefferson is expected to serve 1,700 students.

In approving the modernization plan, the board added an amendment to increase enrollment and directed the superintendent to “initiate a process to develop a plan to increase student enrollment at Jefferson High School.”

Jefferson has a unique dual enrollment limit that gives families of eighth graders in the area a choice. They can either choose Jefferson as the neighborhood school they will attend, or they can choose from three other high schools in North or Northeast Portland, depending on where they live.

The original change included more detail about setting boundaries and identifying feeder middle schools, but the language was removed by school board members out of concern that setting boundaries would negatively impact the school’s majority of Black and Hispanic students.

Under the amendment, the superintendent has until the 2026-2027 school year to initiate the process, but a recommendation must be made to the board by June 2027.

During public comment on the Jefferson modernization, safety in Jefferson — the site of two recent school shootings — was a major concern.

“At the parent-teacher conferences here at Jefferson, the only thing the parents were concerned about was what are we doing to make this place safe?” said Montral Brazile, a PPS parent and staff member. Brazile mentioned that a temporary police officer was on site in response to the recent Jefferson shooting.

PPS student representative Byronie McMahon, a senior in Cleveland, also spoke about gun violence near Portland schools and her experience teaching literature during Monday’s shooting at her school.

“Gun violence is a pervasive American problem and I think the solutions have already been voiced and it’s really going to come down to that community partnership and working with the authorities within our communities that are also trying to solve and mitigate the damage and to.” mitigate the likelihood of gun violence incidents,” McMahon said.

Plans to support the “Culture of Black Excellence” with a new center are underway

Other commenters urged the district to consider minority contractors on the Jefferson Project, continue to collect contributions from community members, hire more color teachers, and keep the school’s academics rigorous.

Given Jefferson’s historical connection to Portland’s black community, district officials have expressed their intention to better serve black students through Jefferson’s modernization as well as the district’s new Center for Black Student Excellence.

District officials provided an update on CBSE’s progress to the board on Tuesday, outlining the issue of “underinvestment, systemic racism, lack of coordinated support systems and discriminatory practices.” At the same time, officials articulated an opportunity to “redefine the future by advancing a culture of black excellence; unifying and enhancing the educational experience for blacks; and improving outcomes for black students.”

Over the next year, a number of groups, including a design team and the Center for Black Excellence Board, will gather feedback from community members, host open houses, and provide recommendations to the board. The aim is to present a vision, a comprehensive plan, a facility plan and an operations plan. The district’s innovation studio, referred to as the “problem-solving accelerator,” leads the process.

“We move aggressively through our design process,” said Camille Idedevbo, Founding Manager of Innovation Studio.

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