Facing Facts on Hillside

Article excerpt

Byline: The Register-Guard

In retrospect, it would have been better to announce the closure of Hillside elementary school a year ago. The school would have been spared the task of attempting to develop a curriculum distinctive enough to merit continued designation as an alternative school. But there were reasons for dodging a tough decision then - indeed, at Wednesday's meeting the Eugene School Board could have found reasons to avoid it once again. Instead, the board did the right thing, voting 5-2 for a recommendation likely to lead to Hillside's closure in June of 2008.

Hillside is one of the Eugene School District's eight alternative schools, and like the others it has a fiercely protective constituency. Students attend Hillside because their families have chosen the school for its curriculum, teaching style and atmosphere.

But Eugene's school choice system has led to imbalances. The alternative schools attract students whose families have the means and the motivation to take advantage of their options, while some neighborhood schools are left with disproportionate numbers of minority, low-income and special-needs students. The disparities are hardest to ignore when an alternative school and a neighborhood school share a building, as Hillside does with Adams Elementary.

The district has struggled for years to ensure equity between the two types of schools. As one part of this effort Superintendent George Russell assigned a review team to determine whether each of the alternative schools' special status was justified. Hillside's review, completed last year, produced a decidedly mixed verdict.

The team found no problem with the school's economic and ethnic diversity. But the distinctiveness of Hillside's curriculum had attenuated as schools throughout the district adopted elements of its emphasis on teaching basic skills. And Hillside's low enrollment - 121 last year, counting kindergartners - raised doubts about its ability to retain a critical mass of students. Concerns about Hillside's viability were amplified by a broader decision to move away from housing alternative and neighborhood schools in the same building.

Hillside should have been closed a year ago on the basis of that review. But closing a school is the toughest decision a superintendent or a school board can make. Instead, the board ordered that Hillside's educational program be modified in ways that respond to the review team's findings. Further, presuming those modifications resulted in a more distinctive curriculum and a larger enrollment, the board directed preparations for Hillside's relocation to begin. …