Student's success shines light on achievements, problems

Student's success shines light on achievements, problems
Alexandra Gritta (left) and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.

The Portland Public Schools would like you to know all about Alexandra Gritta, and who could blame them?

The soon-to-be-senior at Lincoln High School in Portland is a published author. She has set up a charity. She is an award-winning filmmaker. And last week was given the Congressional Award Gold Medal, which is given to students who show remarkable achievement and service.

According to the school district: “Alexandra turned her love for horses into a charity that qualified her for the voluntary public service portion of the award, spending hundreds of hours and raising over $25,000 for organizations with missions to rescue and provide safe habitats for horses."

The Office of Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who presented her the award added that there’s also her viola-playing – she’s in more than one orchestra – her constantly setting new goals when it comes to bicycling, her seeking out of new challenges.

She is only the 11th Oregonian to receive the award since it was established in 1979.

Not bad.

Gritta is an excellent student at a school with an excellent reputation.

The thing is, while her accomplishments shine a light on some of the excellence to be found in the Portland Public Schools, they also magnify some of the shortcomings.

Lincoln, where she goes, constantly has graduation rates among the highest – if not the highest in the city. Last year, some 83 percent of their students graduated.

But while that was happening, there was another story – fewer than 40 percent of black students graduated.

And that’s the problem.

There are a lot of excellent things happening in the schools. But there is a lack of consistency - even within the same school.

An audit of graduation rates commissioned by the school district and made public this week was filled with glum news that was wrapped in the language of attempted optimism.

There are sentences like:

“Although (Portland Schools) increased graduation rates by 10 points and lowered dropout rates by four points over the past four years, (Portland Schools) rank last in graduation rates and 7th in dropout rates when compared to the ten largest Oregon school districts;”

And.

“Several large Oregon districts with similar demographics and special populations are able to achieve better performance than (Portland Schools). Hillsboro School District and Salem Keizer School District perform significantly better with special population groups and underserved ethnic populations.”

Superintendent Carole Smith – in her response to the audit – conceded things need to be better.

“Our four-year graduation rate is not where it needs to be and much work remains,” she wrote.

As the audit points out, this is despite the fact that Portland spends about 25 percent more per student than other districts.

Smith said that the audit is filled with lots of great ideas – many of which are used at schools in the district. One of the problems, she wrote, is that “we also recognize that often these strategies are not implemented at every high school on a consistent basis.”

Ed Koch, the former Mayor of New York, once referred to the presidency as the second-toughest job in the country, with the implication being that being Mayor of New York was number one.

He was close.

Being a teacher is the toughest job in the country.

Year after year budgets to school districts are slashed. We complain about our students not being educated, being unable to compete on a global stage and yet we pretty much set them up for failure, denying them the tools they need to succeed.

Sure there are bad teachers out there just as there are bad doctors, lawyers, politicians and reporters.

But by and large teachers are doing their jobs because they want to help others become better people. Why else would they put up with relatively low pay and large amounts of abuse?

I know teachers. I am related to teachers. They are far better people than most I know.

Which brings us back to Alexandra Gritta.

Her dad – a university professor and no slouch – says “she’s not the brightest student in the school but she works really hard and was inspired by great teachers.”

He says it goes back to elementary school and thinks it’s that way for lots of successful students.

Educating kids should not be brain surgery; it should not be a process so overrun with politics that the whole purpose of schools – education – is drowned out.

Look to Alexandra Gritta, Congressional Medal Winner and hard-working student.

Pushed by great teachers, she has had great success.

Portland Public Schools are at a moment where they need support.

Give it to them and there will surely be more Alexandra Grittas to write about. Deny the success and this week’s audit of graduation rates will be just the beginning of the slide.