In the 2012-13 school year, the Portland Student Union made its mark on the Portland community with numerous student-organized events that capture legislators’ and administrators’ attention. Widely covered by the news, they became an active force in the community this year. Arguably the loudest voice for students in the Portland Public Schools (PPS), the Union’s involvement in the community is one of the few things students have to try to make a difference in their education. But what lies in store for the new school year? Will the Union be as involved and as vocal?
Emma Christ, a senior at Cleveland High School, has been a part of the Student Union since last December. She says, “The issue I am most passionate about is education … both locally and globally there is a lack of adequate education, as well as limited access to education.”
Last year, the Portland Student Union was a strong force in the community. (Photo: Gabby Bishop '14)
On their website, the Portland Student Union outlines a five-point program that includes the prioritization of education spending, the democratization of the educational community, the de-emphasis of standardized testing, the creation of equal educational opportunity, and the support of youth at risk. Last year, the major strikes and marches that the Union organized primarily focused on education budget cuts and standardized testing.
On May Day 2012, students from the Grant High School Student Union organized a march to protest budget cuts that started with a picket line at PPS headquarters and led through downtown Portland, closing Lincoln High School and inciting a response from current mayor Sam Adams, who spoke to the students outside of City Hall the same day. About 250 students marched, ending the event where they started, at PPS headquarters. There they received praise for their efforts from superintendent Carole Smith.
At a similar march just ten days later, a student-led crowd grew to over 800 at Pioneer Courthouse Square, where students, parents, and teachers gave testimonies of how budget cuts would negatively affect the community.
On November 3, 2012, students participated in the Solidarity Against Austerity march to protest budget cuts, and many were pepper-sprayed by the Portland Police when there was a confrontation in the street. The surprising violence earned a lot of attention, and raised the seriousness of the student movement in many people’s eyes. CatlinSpeak covered the event in a story and a vlog.
Last April, the Cleveland High School Student Union led a walk-out on the day that eleventh graders were scheduled to take the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) science test. Christ told the Oregonian that she believes the OAKS tests are an unfair assessment of the teachers and schools.
The walk-out and other protests against standardized testing were a part of the Opt-Out campaign, says Christ, which she thinks was one of the Portland Student Union’s best accomplishments last year.
Christ explains, “the Opt-Out campaign sort of proved that we were (and are) serious about our education, serious about the impacts of high-stakes standardized testing, and that we weren’t going to sit back and watch our education go to waste.” She notes that students often struggle to make their voices heard due to their young age, and that Opt-Out was great because it made the Union more known.
Although the Portland Student Union seems to have died out, they have big goals for this school year. Christ states that their primary goal is to “provide support and solidarity with the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) as they negotiate their contracts with the district.” She explains that the discussion of contracts began in spring 2013, and now is being handled through mediation, which started October 14. Mediation involves bargaining through a representative of the state, clarifies Christ, which takes away public involvement.
According to the Oregonian, district officials said they turned to mediation because negotiating wasn’t producing the results they wanted. The PPS District and the PAT remain in disagreement on issues like health insurance, wages, and a limitation on workloads. Christ mentions that she and other Portland Student Union members have attended bargaining sessions, and worries that the teachers could go on strike if an agreement is not reached.
Andrew Davidson, a senior at Grant High School, serves as the student representative of the PPS on the District Board. He explains that the district listens to the interests of the students, but their goals for this year are to secure Youth Pass (a program that offers a free all-zone TriMet pass to all PPS high school students which Portland Mayor Charlie Hales cut in the last year), fund Outdoor School (an alternative learning program that takes sixth graders into the outdoors for a week), and get more student involvement in PPS decision making.
Although the Portland Student Union may not hold a lot of power in the district, dedicated students can really make a difference, like Portland saw last year.
Davidson says, “It’s going to be a long hard fight, and we will need strong student leaders for at least the next three years. But if we can do it, PPS will be a much more successful district and the community will directly benefit from it.”