Background: Legacy of Discrimination
The fight for equitable access to public education in Portland dates back to Oregon’s path to statehood.
Oregon passed a Black Exclusion Law, banning African Americans from entering, residing, or acquiring property.
Oregon included a “whites only” clause in its original constitution – the only such law for any state in the Union.
When Oregon officially joined the Union, Portland Public Schools had been established for nearly a decade.
But the district had already adopted racist practices that disadvantage students of color – especially our Black and Native students.
William Brown, a resident of Portland, tried but was unable to enroll his Black children in one of Portland’s only two public elementary schools.
Brown appealed to the school board but got denied once again in the first recorded case of racism against Black children in Portland Public Schools.
This shameful episode is one of many instances of racism that have affected generations of students and neighborhoods.
Forced displacement and marginalization
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in lower Albina. The close-in Portland neighborhood was segregated by design, yet it thrived –becoming a creative, affordable enclave for Portland’s African American community.
It was the cultural capital of Black Portland: with world-class jazz venues, environmental justice initiatives, and education models created for and by Black Portlanders.
Black-owned businesses, homes, and faith institutions lined its streets.
Most importantly, it created a sense of place and community.
By the 1960s, disinvestment and urban renewal – such as the construction of Interstate 5 – had forcibly displaced thousands of primarily Black residents and businesses from the neighborhood.
The neighborhood’s schools suffered under the weight of this upheaval. And in the end, students bore the cost. Forced busing sent many Black students to schools outside their neighborhood.
Advocating for Black student achievement
There have been longstanding, well-documented examples of advocacy by Black leaders and Black-led organizations who fought for children and against discrimination.
These efforts gained momentum in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the social movement for Black Lives.
The work further accelerated when Black Portland community leaders put forth the concept of the Center for Black Student Excellence (CBSE).
Later in 2020, voters approved a bond measure that enabled Black-led and -serving educational organizations in the Albina community to engage in the design and implementation of the CBSE.
The core idea behind the CBSE: both material components – such as redesigning the physical environment – and symbolic ones. For instance: Interstate 5 needs to be widened, so a major institution in the Black community – Harriet Tubman MS – needs to be relocated to protect the safety and health of its students and staff.
In addition, Jefferson High School – another critical institution to the Black community – requires major renovations.
As for symbolic efforts: centering the Black experience, by promoting opportunities, boosting outcomes, and celebrating the achievements of Portland’s Black children, families, and educators.
Developing the CSBE:
New partnerships and coalitions
To turn the vision for the Center for Black Student Excellence into reality, the PPS Board of Education in 2022 unanimously approved the formation of the Center for Black Excellence (“CBE”), a new organization.
The CBE is a partnership between PPS and the Albina Vision Trust (AVT) – a community-based organization facilitating the thoughtful reinvention and transformation of the 94-acres of lower Albina.
The CBE will be inherently connected to the development and success of the physical place of the CBSE. With the AVT as fiscal sponsor, Black community leaders as well as leaders within educational organizations will comprise the steering committee that will incorporate the CBE as a new nonprofit.
This community-led effort will listen, learn, and present a plan to develop a youth-centered community in lower Albina that creates opportunities for Portland’s next generation of Black people to learn, build wealth and reclaim their cultural center.
Once formed, the 13-member CBE Board will meet regularly to focus on the following: Student-facing PPS capital projects such as the Jefferson High School modernization and Harriet Tubman Middle School’s relocation; evaluate the CBSE vision, comprehensive plan, facilities plan, and operations; monitor Black student experience in PPS schools; and lead a vision for future projects and create work streams to positively impact Black student experience.
Within PPS, the district’s Innovation Studio, a problem-solving accelerator, is facilitating the process by helping to build the tools and infrastructure to help the district address this challenge.
The design team will tap into experience of subject matter experts, stakeholders with lived experience in the community, and a guiding coalition to include Black-led organizations and leaders who are influencing change within the community, (including Albina Head Start, Black Parent Initiative, Kairos PDX, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, REAP and Self-Enhancement, Inc.).
By spring 2023, we aim to publicly share an overall vision for the CBSE, including a comprehensive list of outcomes, a facility plan, and a roadmap for operations.
Our hope is that students develop a deeper sense of their racial and cultural identities, rooted in honest history, and supported by experiential learning.
This effort will be co-created by Portland’s Black community - and it will help PPS fulfill its expressed commitment towards core values of racial equity and social justice.
Putting our values into action
We’re committed to living these values.
In this spirit, one of the very first actions our district has taken is renaming the district headquarters after the late Dr. Matthew Prophet, Jr.
Dr. Prophet took on the role as Portland Public Schools’ first African-American superintendent exactly 40 years ago.
Renaming a prominent physical space in his honor comes only months after his passing at the age of 92.
The news has created an outpouring of remembrances in celebration of his legacy of encouraging andsupporting Black excellence.
In the decade that Dr. Prophet led our city’s school system, from 1982 to 1992, he helped stabilize district funding.
He rightly saw promise in ALL students - and he made it his goal to raise and recognize achievement for those who’d been left behind.
Under his leadership, Black students saw a 65% percent improvement in mathematics and 43% percent improvement in reading.
Dr. Prophet also helped open doors for a greater share of Black students to continue their education beyond HS. For instance, the percentage of Black high school graduates choosing higher education rose from 49% in 1987 to 80% percent by 1991.
And long before diversity and inclusion were buzzwords, Dr. Prophet’s leadership resulted in increased representation of staff in all PPS schools to reflect student and community populations.
Renaming our district HQ is a fitting tribute to a man who grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi, where free education for Black students ended in the eighth grade.
We thank the former colleagues and community leaders, including the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators (ORABSE), the World Arts Foundation, Inc. (WAFI), and the PPS Board for recognizing how Dr. Prophet’s vision helped secure a more equitable future for ALL students.